From Canada & Chicago: Aero, Icewine Candy & Deep Dish

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Lou Malnati's Pizzeria
1050 East Higgins, Elk Grove Village, IL 60007
Web: Lou Malnati's Pizzeria
Phone: 847.439.2000
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"A friend brought us to Malnati's years ago, telling us before ordering that we shouldn't bother putting four or five toppings on one of these deep dish pizzas. He was right."

Our loves for imported Canadian chocolates, ice wine, and authentic Chicago deep dish pizza are already well-documented, but there's a lot more left to say - and try. This week, we're looking at a handful of additional, noteworthy items that we've picked up recently and wanted to share with you: some additional variants on the Aero bar, Peanut Smarties, ice wine-inspired candies, and authentic deep dish from Chicago's famous Lou Malnati's Pizzeria. Read on for all the details.

If you haven't already heard of Aero bars, start here: for years, Western New Yorkers have been lucky to be able to find these airy chocolate and mint candy bars by just driving over to the Canadian side of our shared border and stopping into any gas station or convenience store. Originally developed 74 years ago in the United Kingdom, Aero became famous there and in Canada for its bubbly innards, which work especially well with the mint version we've previously mentioned; that one and milk chocolate are the most commonly available bars in our experience.

But there are other Aero bars, and we came across three of them on a visit two weekends ago to Niagara Falls: Aero Dark, Aero Caramel, and Aero Chunky, each sold for around $1. The names tell you much of what you need to know, but not everything - as fans of the milk and mint versions, we were actually disappointed by all three of these.

Aero Dark is a dark chocolate bar that is identical in shape to milk and mint, but with a more bitter, "sophisticated" taste. The bubbly center is preserved more completely here than in caramel or chunky, though the dark chocolate is more brittle than the milk and mint versions. Purchased specifically for the one of us who prefers dark chocolate to milk, it received a shrug and wasn't finished; the other of us would prefer the milk version any day.

Aero Caramel is a longer, thinner half-tube of milk chocolate with a straw-like pipe of semi-soft caramel running through its top center. Less of the bubble structure of the milk, mint, and dark bars survives into this version, but you'll still sense some of the airy bubbles in the milk chocolate as you pierce and spread around caramel from bite to bite. It's an okay candy bar, with too little of the thick thrills that typically go along with caramel-filled chocolates - a caramel bar for Aero fans, rather than an Aero bar for caramel fans.

Aero Chunky was the most confusing of the bunch, a milk chocolate-based Aero bar that was re-configured with the half-tube shape of Aero Caramel and a similarly heavier, less airy body. The outer chocolate is thicker, and the bubbly center uses smaller air bubbles with a seemingly higher density of chocolate. In British parlance, Aero Chunky struck us as having lost the plot - it comes so close to being a regular chocolate bar, minus some of the taste, that we can't understand why anyone would bother with it. It's interesting, but not great.

Smarties is another classic Nestle brand - the Canadian and British alternative to M&M's, with thicker and at one point more colorful candy shells that covered similar milk chocolate. Now Nestle is selling a version called Sweet & Salty Smarties Peanut, a rival to Peanut M&M's that adds just a little salt between the peanut and milk chocolate layers to try and make the flavor more interesting. Initially, the salt is faint, but it becomes a little more obvious with each piece of candy you eat, and nicely evokes the sense of eating chocolates and roasted, salted peanuts rather than just plain, overly sweet M&M's. Smarties Peanut isn't going to blow most people away, and it's not necessarily worth a cross-border trip on its own, but peanut fans will find it worth trying. Bags sell for around $2, give or take a little based on size.

Ice wine is expensive - generally, crazy expensive - due to the very low yields of usable liquid from specially frozen grapes, so we were excited to discover bagged Icewine Candies (as spelled on the package) from a company called Canada True. Individually wrapped and shaped like maple leaves, these candies are slightly yellow and thick with sugar, sold in 90-gram bags for CDN$5. They're also pretty worthless. Lacking in grape flavor or any distinctive flavor, they're sweet and hard, quickly sticking in one, two, or three unlucky teeth before getting crunched or sucked into boring oblivion. We've heard good things about the company's other candies, but this one's a complete waste.

Finally, we've mentioned Lou Malnati's Pizza in the past, but haven't gone much into detail about this special Chicago treat - one that helped change our perspective on pizza forever. As one version of the story goes, Lou Malnati's father Rudy invented the deep dish pizza in late 1943 while he was an employee of what became Pizzeria Uno, which proceeded to mass market and bastardize the original recipe to the point where it's not even necessarily good any more. (Note: There are disputes over how much credit Uno's owners and Malnati deserve for inventing the deep dish, which remain unresolved.) In any case, Lou and Rudy co-mananged Uno together in the 1950's, and eventually Lou left Uno to start his own pizzeria, which opened in 1971. Today, Chicago and its suburbs have 27 Lou Malnati's Pizzerias.

A friend brought us to a Malnati's location many years ago, telling us right before ordering that we shouldn't bother putting four or five toppings on one of these deep dish pizzas; in Chicago, he said, at least with a real deep dish, the toppings weren't the star attraction. Between the crust, the sauce, and the cheese, you'd be hard-pressed to need much more than one extra ingredient in a slice, he said. We were unconvinced, but followed his advice nonetheless.

What arrived soon thereafter was a pepperoni pizza unlike any other we'd had, even at Pizzeria Uno. A buttery, crispy, and tall crust arrived with a thick layer of mozzarella touching the dough, pepperoni above that, and a ton of chunky tomato sauce on top. Due to the crust, it was a true pie of a pizza, massive and beautiful in the way that fresh, hot food can be without grooming - simply reorganizing and reapportioning the "standard" pizza's elements made it interesting. But it was the quality of Malnati's strong tomato sauce, fresh cheese, and "this can't possibly be healthy" crust that really sold every slice. True to our friend's word, the pepperoni wasn't a star or even a major sideshow here: the rest of the pie was just that strong. Uno's version is comparatively ridiculous; chains outside of Buffalo such as B.J.'s Restaurant come far closer to the Malnati's experience.

Once or twice a year, our friend sends authentic but frozen Lou Malnati's pizzas to us through the company's Tastes of Chicago web site, and while they're expensive ($40 shipped for a $12 pizza) and not even close to as awesome as the ones served at the restaurant - Bocce's does a better job of delivering its pizzas nationwide, we know from experience - they have invariably thrilled the family and friends we've shared them with. In the past, he's sent some with pepperoni, and others nothing but cheese. This month's arrival was solely cheese, shipped for the first time with a $20 metal "Traditional Deep Dish Pizza Pan" that helps the crust to more properly crisp than the frozen pies' thinner disposable pans do. As always, it went into the oven immediately after we received it, and barely had time to pause for pictures before the two of us devoured it. We love our Buffalo-style pizza, but Western New Yorkers owe this alternative a try, particularly when visiting Chicago or its suburbs.

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