OFF THE MENU: Giovanni’s “Dive Burger”

OFF THE MENU: Giovanni’s/Big Al’s “DIVE BURGER

I’ve been lucky enough to befriend a few local chefs with amazing skills and great senses of humor. After many conversations about food, drink and technique, I’ve discovered the beautiful mystery of “Off the Menu” items. Nearly every great chef has a secret item or two hidden up their coat sleeves.  Items that may not suit or fit the everyday menu selection, but definitely amp up the creativity and flavor levels! This is the first in, hopefully, a long line of these dishes that can change your mild-mannered dining experiences into something rivaling the treasure hunts and explorations of Indiana Jones!

I had heard tales of the Dive Burger at a Wine Dinner a couple of months ago. There’s nothing like removing the polished veneer and pomp of a wine dinner by introducing yourself as a foodie with a preference of Royal Crown Cola over Cabernet Sauvignon. Somehow, that revelation allowed a discussion of guilty pleasures to bloom. And stories of Burgers, Dogs and junk food poured forth like an explosive bag of Mrs. Fisher’s Chips! This is when a fellow diner mentioned the Dive Burger. He couldn’t even begin to describe it any further than…”You HAVE to try it”…”It’s HUGE”…and “it comes with a knife stabbed right through the middle”. Color me immediately intrigued!  I followed it up a few days later in a conversation with Chef Al Castrogiovanni. He told me to name the date and he would hook me up.  Never being one to turn down an invitation to lunch, I quickly set up a meet & eat.

When I first arrived, Chef Al gave me a little rundown on the history and evolution of the Dive Burger. Inspired in equal parts by features from food shows such as “Man Vs. Food” and “Diners, Drive In’s & Dives” as well as conversations with cohorts at Rockford’s CrossFit Fitness.  Of course, that’s exactly what I would  do during a workout (if I actually worked out). I’d spend time thinking of how Bad Ass and Awesome I could make a burger!  He said he wanted to create a “challenge” style burger and what Chef Al soon set before me was nothing short of that BADASS & AWESOME! Both in presentation and portion, I was thoroughly impressed.  Served with a heaping helping of everyone’s favorite Tots. Right from the start I knew that I’d be taking some home to share with the Fam!

We’ll start at the bottom and work our way up. The Dive Burger is built on a foundation of a crustless grilled cheese sandwich. A savory blend of bacon, avocado and Havarti cheese, grilled perfectly!  The AvoBacon blended with the Havarti brings a perfect smooth and subtle finish to the overall flavor in this dish.

Nestled atop the Grilled Cheese base is a 1/2 pound of juicy, grass-fed beef, brought in locally from Marengo’s Q7 Ranch. Drizzled over the beef patty is a spoonful of truffle oil sautéed mushrooms. Earthy and rich, I would love to top every meat dish with this combo! Just to put in one degree of separation from the lower level of the Dive Burger and the top, we find a generous slice of my personal fave, Swiss cheese.

The “upstairs” portion of the Dive Burger holds a mouth-watering Hickory Smoked Pork at its core. The aroma and smoke flavor from the pork damn near made me want to cry tears of joy. I love a good BBQ dish, and apparently so does Al!  Holding the pork steady at the top of this heap are two bacon wrapped onion rings, acting almost as a crown to this King sized burger. Again, the infusion of bacon into any flavor combo could probably sell me on any dish, but here it actually plays such a discreet but necessary supporting role.

Over all of that, Chef Al ladels a Condiment Blend of Ketchup, Mustard, Mayo, Hot Sauce, Pickles and Onions, that sings a mixture of sweet & sour (w-just a hint of biting heat) to counter the rich and smokey running through the rest of the burger.

Just to make sure this Towering Inferno stays put on your plate, it’s finished off with yet another Grilled Cheese Sandwich and a kitchen knife driven through the heart of the burger. Trust me, you will need this knife to find your way into the burger!

I’ve had these sort of “Monster” burgers before. Usually, they end up becoming a black hole of flavor by mid meal, with no one taste coming to surface over another.  They finish off damp and heavy.  NOT the Dive Burger! While massive in size (I made it through 1/2), each element brings such a distinct flavor to the overall sandwich, allowing for a full spectrum of taste in every bite. The tang of the sauce traded with the smoke of the meat. The smoke the meat would trade with the bite of the cheese. The bite of the cheese traded with the salt of the bacon and onion ring. On and on throughout the Dive Burger. I would call this a definitive BBQ Fans Burger. I was completely impressed and satisfied with this dish, and my wife was completely happy to see me bring some home!  I would’ve taken any part of this burger on its own for a great lunch, but Chef Al has combined them in a way that makes it a completely new taste experience. At $13, it sits perfectly in price point, especially considering you could easily get two meals out of it. Swing by Giovanni’s/Big Al’s and ask for the Dive Burger by name. Chef Al says it is always evolving and you may get to have a first hand experience at a brand new culinary adventure. I cannot urge you enough to get to know the chef at your favorite food spot. Most would love to give you a bit more background on the inspiration and technique that goes into their dishes. I can also guarantee they will have a dish or two that’s not on the menu, but SO worth a little extra digging for a chance to experience.

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Chef & restaurant info: A graduate of the Illinois Institute of Chicago-Culinary Arts Program, Chef Al has years of experience in the back of the house experimenting and creating a killer menu for Giovanni’s/Big Al’s Bar in Rockford, as well as past experience at some of Chicago’s finest. Giovanni’s/Big Al’s is, sadly, often thought of as a “special occasion”, or “Easter Brunch” sort of establishment. It really isn’t. Beneath the upscale/modern exterior beats the heart and spirit of a kick ass GastroPub waiting to happen. I like to call it “Casually Fine” dining, or all the flavor at half the cost!  Chef Al and the Gio’s staff will deliver that EVERY time.