Fourth of July Grilling with Spiaggia Chef Tony Mantuano

Marinated lamb chops and spicy watermelon salad star on Independence Day. Plus, 12 Italian wine pairings
Fourth of July Grilling with Spiaggia Chef Tony Mantuano
The juicy watermelon salad has spicy dried pepper, Pecorino Romano cheese, fresh mint and candied pistachios. (Matt Reeves)
Jun 22, 2018

For Fourth of July grilling, you want a recipe that’s reliably delicious and unfussy, something you can cook with one hand while holding a drink in the other. But, let’s be honest: A touch of something extra makes the holiday meal truly memorable, like a dusting of hot Controne pepper from Campania over a juicy watermelon salad, or a red wine marinade for succulent grilled lamb chops. Chef Tony Mantuano of Chicago’s celebrated Spiaggia restaurant shares tips on making these flavorful dishes.

Mantuano was raised in an Italian-American community in Kenosha, Wis., surrounded, in his words, “by a devotion to culture and food products.” His grandparents operated the Mantuano Food Shop, where his uncles also worked, and he vividly recalls his grandmother’s cooking and grandfather’s garden.

He moved to Chicago in the early 1980s, working as a chef in various restaurants. There, he met brothers Larry and Mark Levy, who were developing a new restaurant on Michigan Avenue overlooking Lake Michigan and were in search of an opening chef. As the soon-to-be Spiaggia was being built (spiaggia means “beach” in Italian), Mantuano spent a year in Italy with his wife, Cathy, working in restaurants via Larry Levy’s connections.

That era was far from the Italophile craze in American food culture today, Mantuano remembers. “There were no Americans doing stages in 1982, ’83,” he laughs. “There were Italians, Japanese, South Africans, but there were no Americans in any of the kitchens. And we worked in at least six restaurants.”

The firsthand experience paid off. Since its opening in 1984, Spiaggia and Mantuano have gone on to win numerous dining awards, including Wine Spectator's Best of Award of Excellence since 2009 for the restaurant’s 750-selection wine list. Now also a partner, Mantuano recently encouraged his executive chef Joe Flamm to compete on Top Chef. Flamm won.

Chef Tony Mantuano started as a music major in college, until “I realized I enjoyed much more the action of a kitchen than playing the trombone.”

Chef Mantuano's two-part Fourth of July menu starts with a light salad of juicy watermelon, fresh mint, olive oil, red wine vinegar and a bit of dried hot Controne pepper. Sprinkled over the top are shavings of Pecorino Romano and crunchy candied pistachios, cooked in a simple syrup. (As a shortcut, you can simply toast the pistachios in sugar and salt, Mantuano adds, though you'll get less caramelized flavor and crunch.) In the summertime, this fruity salad is a top-seller at his more casual Cafe Spiaggia.

The main course is grilled lamb shoulder chops, which Mantuano says is his favorite cut. “It’s next to the bone, there’s a little H-bone in there. It can be supertender if it’s handled right, marinated right and charcoal-grilled,” he says.

The red wine marinade, which turns the meat a dark plum hue, is important for its role in tenderizing the meat, as well as adding flavor. “As you cut into it and chew it, you have the meat juices mixed with the red wine flavor,” says Mantuano. A side of seasonal beans provides balance to the robust meat.

Wine director Rachael Lowe recommends a Vietti Roero Arneis 2017, a medium-bodied, unoaked white from Piedmont, to pair with the watermelon salad. Mantuano, an advocate of undervalued Italian sparklers, adds that a Ferrari brut rosé would also work well. For the lamb chops, Lowe suggests a structured Tuscan Sangiovese, such as the Sanguineto Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 2014.

Below, Wine Spectator shares an additional six white and six red Italian wines to try out.

Mantuano is keeping busy with two new upcoming restaurants—a new concept in Orlando’s Disney Springs and another project in partnership with the Chicago Cubs baseball team at Wrigley Field—but his plans for Independence Day are in place.

“[The Cubs] have a Chef Series event where they have a group of seven or eight chefs each take over a concession stand for a weekend and do maybe four [food] items. It’s been really fun,” says Mantuano. “So that's one of the things I’ll be doing. But we always go to Wisconsin to see family around the holidays. I’m sure we’ll be grilling lamb chops there.”

Recipes courtesy of chef Tony Mantuano, Spiaggia

Watermelon Salad with Candied Pistachio, Fresh Mint, Controne Pepper and Pecorino Romano

Matt Reeves
The spicy watermelon salad returns to the Cafe Spiaggia menu each summer due to popular demand.

For the candied pistachios:

  • 2 cups whole pistachios, shelled
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup water
  • For the salad:

  • 1/2 round seedless watermelon, peel removed, cut into chunks
  • 1/4 cup hand-torn fresh mint
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon dried Controne pepper, or to taste (as an alternative, use crushed dried chile)
  • Sea salt
  • 1 cup shaved Pecorino Romano cheese
  • 1. Make the candied pistachios: Preheat the oven to 350° F. Oil a large baking sheet and set aside until ready to use. Spread the nuts in a single layer on a separate baking sheet and toast in the oven until very light brown, 5 minutes. Transfer immediately to a plate to cool. Combine the sugar and water in a saucepan. Stir to dissolve the sugar. Bring to a boil and continue to boil until the water is reduced and the syrup starts to color. Reduce the heat and continue to cook until the caramel is a light, even brown. Add the nuts all at once and stir them in. Continue cooking to loosen the mixture. Remove from the heat and pour the mixture onto the oiled baking sheet. Spread the mixture out evenly and quickly, separating the nuts before it hardens. Let cool completely. Break up into bite-size pieces for serving.

    2. To serve, combine the watermelon with the mint, olive oil, vinegar, Controne pepper and sea salt in a large bowl. Toss to coat evenly. Divide among four plates and top with the cheese and candied pistachios. Serves 4.

    Note: Candied nuts can be stored in an airtight container, away from heat and light, for up to one week.

    Grilled Marinated Lamb Shoulder Chops with Summer Three-Bean Salad

    Matt Reeves
    When choosing your meat, says chef Tony Mantuano, “There’s just something about the texture of local, fresh lamb that can’t be beat.”

    For the lamb dish:

  • 4 lamb shoulder chops, 6 to 8 ounces each
  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 small onion, thinly sliced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • Grated zest of 1 lemon
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary leaves
  • 2 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 1 bay leaf, crushed
  • 1 1/2 cups dry red wine
  • For the bean salad:

  • 3 handfuls fresh summer beans, such as green beans, yellow beans, romano (pole) beans or cranberry beans
  • 1 tablespoon minced shallot
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon Sherry vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons fresh oregano leaves
  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1. Season the chops with salt and pepper. Lay the chops flat next to each other in a non-reactive 13-inch-by-9-inch baking dish. Sprinkle with the onion, garlic, lemon juice, lemon zest, rosemary, thyme and bay leaf. Pour in the red wine. Turn the chops over, cover, and refrigerate for 2 hours, turning once halfway through.

    2. One hour before cooking the meat, prepare the beans. Have ready a large bowl of ice water. Bring a pot of lightly salted water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the beans and cook until crisp-tender, but still vibrant in color, 3 to 5 minutes. Drain and quickly plunge the beans into the ice water. Let cool completely then drain again. Toss with the shallot, olive oil, Sherry vinegar and oregano. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside until ready to use.

    3. Prepare a charcoal grill or preheat a gas grill to medium-high.

    4. Remove the chops from the marinade and pat dry with paper towels. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Arrange on the grill and cook until nicely browned and grill-marked, 3 to 4 minutes on each side for medium rare, or until an instant-read thermometer registers 120° F when inserted into the thickest part.

    5. To serve, place each chop on a plate. Top each chop with some beans. Serves 4.

    12 Recommended Italian Wines

    Note: The following list is a selection of outstanding and very good white and red wines from the most recently rated releases. More Italian white and red wines can be found in our Wine Ratings Search.

    Full-Flavored Piedmont Whites

    BROGLIA Gavi Il Doge 2016 Score: 90 | $18
    A round, mouthfilling white, sporting peach, apple, straw and mineral aromas and flavors. Vivid and balanced, leaving a chalky, tangy sensation on the lingering aftertaste. Drink now. 5,000 cases made.—Bruce Sanderson

    BRUNO GIACOSA Roero Arneis 2016 Score: 90 | $30
    Floral and peach aromas give way to peach, melon and citrus flavors in this harmonious, juicy white. Impeccably balanced and very drinkable, with a long, delicate aftertaste. Drink now. 11,500 cases made.—B.S.

    ICARDI Cortese Piemonte L'Aurora 2016 Score: 88 | $14
    A crisp, lemony white, with vibrant structure carrying the flavors. Balanced, leaving a mouthwatering, saline finish. Drink now. 5,000 cases made.—B.S.

    MALABAILA DI CANALE Roero Arneis 2016 Score: 88 | $16
    Aromas and flavors of peach, apple and floral are textbook, underlined by a vibrant structure. Shows a hint of orange peel on the finish. Drink now. 2,500 cases made.—B.S.

    OTTOSOLDI Gavi 2016 Score: 88 | $20
    A mix of melon and spice flavors graces this bracing white. A salty, mineral element emerges on the intense finish. Drink now. 3,500 cases made.—B.S.

    PAITIN Arneis Langhe Elisa 2016 Score: 88 | $21
    Rich, exuding peach, jasmine and grapefruit aromas and flavors, this white is expressive. Ends with a chalky feel and moderate length. Drink now. 1,000 cases made.—B.S.

    Enticing Tuscan Reds

    CONTE FERDINANDO GUICCIARDINI Chianti Colli Fiorentini Castello di Poppiano Il Cortile 2015 Score: 91 | $17
    Elegant and harmonious, evoking bright cherry, strawberry, floral and mineral flavors, with light tannins and a lingering aftertaste of fruit, earth and mineral. Drink now through 2027. 10,000 cases made.—B.S.

    AVIGNONESI Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 2014 Score: 90 | $28
    A light, elegant style, delivering cherry, iron, leather and earth flavors in a balanced profile. Clean and lively, with a lingering aftertaste of leather, earth and almond. Drink now through 2023. 16,670 cases made.—B.S.

    GUICCIARDINI STROZZI Morellino di Scansano Titolato Strozzi 2016 Score: 90 | $23
    Intense aromas of blackberry, black cherry and graphite signal this rich red. Hints of earth and tobacco add depth as this plays out on the long finish. Drink now through 2022. 4,583 cases made.—B.S.

    VALDONICA Maremma Toscana Saragio 2013 Score: 90 | $25
    Elegant and well-balanced, showcasing cherry, strawberry, leather, woodsy, iron and tobacco flavors. Muscular on the finish but dovetails nicely with the savory aftertaste. Best from 2020 through 2029. 1,200 cases made.—B.S.

    MAZZEI Toscana Serrata 2015 Score: 89 | $21
    Laced with black cherry and blackberry fruit, this is smooth and vibrant. Moderately long, showing accents of earth and spice on the finish. Drink now through 2021. 2,250 cases made.—B.S.

    SILVIO NARDI Rosso di Montalcino 2016 Score: 89 | $30
    Rich and velvety, boasting cherry, almond, tobacco, iron and earth flavors, this is backed by dense tannins, finishing juicy and long. Drink now through 2021. 4,200 cases imported.—B.S.

    Enjoy our seasonal recipe features? Get great recipes from talented chefs, a recommended wine pick and more delivered straight to your inbox! Sign up for Wine Spectator's free Sips & Tips e-mail newsletter featuring tips on wine, cooking, travel and more.

    Chicago Cooking Pairings Holidays / Celebrations Independence Day Recipes

    You Might Also Like

    8 & $20: Crispy Veal with Fennel-Apple-Arugula Salad and a German White Wine

    8 & $20: Crispy Veal with Fennel-Apple-Arugula Salad and a German White Wine

    Minimal effort delivers a restaurant-quality dish that pairs with a Pinot Blanc

    Mar 14, 2023
    8 & $20: Julia Child’s Catalan Beef Stew, Simplified

    8 & $20: Julia Child’s Catalan Beef Stew, Simplified

    This classic from Mastering the Art of French Cooking gets streamlined to cook in under …

    Mar 7, 2023
    8 & $20: Butternut Squash Lasagna with a Sardinian Red

    8 & $20: Butternut Squash Lasagna with a Sardinian Red

    A classic pasta dish gets a cozy-season twist with roasted butternut purée, plus layers of …

    Feb 28, 2023
    8 & $20: Rotisserie Chicken & Greens Pot Pie

    8 & $20: Rotisserie Chicken & Greens Pot Pie

    Pair this one-skillet twist on a winter classic with a bright white wine

    Jan 4, 2023
    Welcome in the New Year with Emiko Davies’ Venetian Branzino al Cumino

    Welcome in the New Year with Emiko Davies’ Venetian Branzino al Cumino

    Emiko Davies’ latest cookbook Cinnamon and Salt traces the importance of Venice’s light …

    Dec 30, 2022
    Crescent City Celebration

    Crescent City Celebration

    Commander’s Palace in New Orleans offers a spirited menu steeped in Southern cocktail …

    Nov 30, 2022