FOODIE FOR THOUGHT: Sara Gasbarra
BY JANET RAUSA FULLER For Sun-Times Media September 18, 2013 11:33AM
Sara Gasbarra, who is the founder of Verdura Garden Design, keeps up the gardens for the Hilton Hotel in Chicago and for other hotels and restaurants. She grows an assortment of herbs and vegetables which go straight from the rooftop to the dinner plate. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times
Updated: September 18, 2013 11:48AM
You probably don’t give the leaves atop the lemon tart at Floriole Cafe and Bakery a second thought, but Sara Gasbarra does.
The Ukrainian Village resident knows they’re edible nasturtium leaves and seeing them gives her a little thrill, because she’s the one who grew them.
As the owner of Verdura, Gasbarra designs and tends gardens for Chicago restaurants, among them Acadia, Nellcote, the Palmer House Hilton and Floriole, her first client. Her office for the past two years has been on rooftops and sidewalks, in soil and under the sun.
Gasbarra, 36, has gardened since she was a kid, before it was cool. In high school, “I just didn’t tell my friends,” she said. Her dad is Italian; at home in Glenview, they grew what Italians do — tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers — and atetheir harvest.
A while back, she was in one of those solid but non-creative office jobs at Northwestern University’s medical school. She quit in 2008 with zero job leads and began volunteering at the Green City Market, where chefs shop. That led to a full-time gig as project manager of the market’s Edible Gardens, where her urban gardening prowess really took root. When the Hilton Chicago on Michigan Avenue came calling in 2011, she knew it was time to leave Green City and start her own business.
Gasbarra gets an insider’s view of restaurants, but she’s not hanging out in the kitchen with the chefs. She typically starts planting in March and goes non-stop through the summer. Some days she barely pauses for a bite until dinner, though she will always pause to take photos of her work — those nasturtium leaves, for example — and post them on Instagram. Social media has been crucial to Verdura’s growth, she says.
The ideal bakery: Floriole [1220 W. Webster] is so European. The stuff they produce is just beautiful and simple and perfect. I go in there and am truly amazed. My favorite thing in the world there, it’s so seasonal, is the fraisier [strawberries layered with genoise and pastry cream]. I literally dream about it starting in February. The strawberries and the cream are so freaking good.
Lunch break: When I’m filthy dirty, and I’m in my yoga pants and gardening boots, it’s Xoco [449 N. Clark]. There are so many restaurants in that area, but there you’re in and out, quick service but really delicious. The cochinita pibil torta [roasted pork sandwich] is my favorite thing in the freaking world.
Being a regular: I spent way too much time at Big Star [1531 N. Damen]. I love the Bristol [2152 N. Damen] because it’s such a great neighborhood spot. I’m always at Caffe Streets [1750 W. Division], too. They do great pourovers and straight-up iced coffee. Carriage House [1700 W. Division] is awesome. The shrimp and grits are fantastic, and I just love their cornbread skillet. It comes with this delicious whipped butter and jam.
Veggie love: I love Lula [2537 N. Kedzie]. I love going on Mondays for lunch or brunch. In the spring, I remember having sweet pea risotto with a poached egg — it was just so beautiful. Jason [Hammel] and the team do beautiful stuff with vegetables, really utilizing what’s in season.
Tiki trend: Everyone’s been talking about Three Dots and a Dash [435 N. Clark]. That place is really dangerous. Those cocktails are not light.
Janet Rausa Fuller is a local free-lance writer.