Mon. March 29, 2004 12:00 AM
by Andy Farriester

Happy Birthday Annie...

There are times in ones life when you are smacked in the face with reality and the ugly truths that follow it. Such a time happened to me this past weekend at a “birthday” dinner for a friend that I had planned and organized. With our table not ready when we arrived, meaning we had to stand outside in the cold, from miscommunication that almost lead to a riot. Well, not really a riot but a lot of empty wallets. The night, I thought was ruined. I had planned to the T, informed all of the guests of the time, what to bring and the price, as it had been quoted to me. Alas, I was not the Martha that I knew that I could be. Then I remembered. This dinner isn’t about me and my partying planning power. This night is a celebration of our friend. Oh, the wonderful and sometimes maligned birthday dinner. Ever find yourself in the party planners shoes? Ever stuck making the decisions that everyone will have to follow? Well, have no fear. I’m here to help. With suggestions where to host that perfect birthday celebration. Whether it be a large, raucous group; my favorite, or a subdued dinner for two. I’ll even offer a few pointers that will make the evening a lot more relaxing for you, the host. So, blow out the candles and make a wish, it’s time to plan a birthday!

Chicago is home to some of the world’s finest dining destinations. From the ubiquitous Trotters to Rick Tramanto and Gale Gand's venture, Tru. So, if like me, you cannot afford to just up and go to one of these restaurants for a celebration for fear of never eating again, let me recommend some other wallet friendly destinations.

This past weekend, twelve friends, including myself, descended upon LaTavernetta; 3023 North Broadway, 773-929-8787, a basement level trattoria. This place is the perfect setting for a romantic dinner for two, not a birthday dinner for 12! I personally love this place but more than once that evening I caught myself mumbling about the service, about the wait and about the bill. More on that later. Prior to this evening, I had set up a menu with the gracious owner, Vito. We were going to have a Italian feast worthy of Tony Soprano's "family". One of the starters or appetizers were three large plates, piled with what I believe was romaine lettuce, fresh mozzarella and large, plump beefsteak tomatoes. This was supposed to be a salad cabrese. I was a little put off by the heaping helping of romaine lettuce, other than the usual basil, but found this salad to be a perfect pairing of simple and sublime. Our party was also served two pastas, prior to the main entree. These were nothing to swoon about. Penne pasta was tossed, or as it was with the cheese sauced one, bathed, in the sauces. One tomato and the other with a creamy cheese sauce. A little less sauce and these could have been brought up a few notches. Our entrees arrived with little to no fanfare. I think that my party had decided to gorge itself on wine other than the food. Wouldn't be a party without, I guess. Again, six large plates descended upon our table. Three piled high with chicken cacciatore. A chicken breast, sauteed in tomatoes, herbs and chopped olives. Our second was a Tilapia Limone. Tilapia filets swathed in a sauce of oil, lemon and capers. Both of these dishes were fine but nothing really stuck me as awe inspiring. As the staff packed up the remainder of our food, our birthday girl was presented with a piece of Tiramisu with a lone candle. She got a sloppy rendition of "Happy Birthday" before being sent home with doggie bags in hand.

All in all, the lady of the hour had a good time. Which is really all that matters. I for one would not recommend LaTavernetta for a large party. It is great for a small group. That's really all that they can handle. Remember, the charm in this place is the family who runs it. They are very special and sweet people. All in all, go a few blocks south to Clark if you are planning a large birthday gathering and head over to Bucca Di Beppo. You'll thank yourself. I promise. Read my favorite "Birthday" picks. Please let me know your favorite picks. Until next time, eat well and love a lot.