Little-Known Little Italy

The Heart of Chicago is considered one of the city’s “Little Italy” neighborhoods. The historic community lives on through its authentic restaurants

Words and Photos by Giuliana LaMantia

At the corner of 24th Street and Oakley Avenue lies a quaint street in the Heart of Chicago neighborhood. Nestled beside Pilsen in the Lower West Side, this community has also been known as “Heart of Italy.” While Italians are no longer the main demographic of the area, five authentic Italian restaurants keep the history of the spot alive today. Each offers food as different and delectable as the next. Miceli’s Deli was also a staple of the area that closed last year. It has since assumed new ownership and is expected to open again soon.

Every Father’s Day weekend, the neighborhood celebrates in the form of an Italian block party called the Oakley Festa Pasta Vino. The three-day affair is filled with Italian food provided by the restaurants and an energetic atmosphere with music and eager attendees.

From chicken vesuvio dinners to a quick gelato, this locally known gem of a neighborhood is as authentic as they come. Next time you find yourself in Chicago, try and make it to one of these restaurants for a traditional Italian meal.

Il Vicinato

Located at: 2435 S Western Ave, Chicago, IL 60608

Go Here For: The family-oriented feel and the fried ravioli

Framed photos and paintings hang on the wooden and olive-colored walls throughout the bar and restaurant. Wine bottles decorate the ledges and windows. The cozy spot is a break from the noise of downtown and even its well known Little Italy counterpart on Taylor Street. It’s located on Western Avenue around the corner from Oakley and is a staple of the neighborhood.

According to 14-year veteran server Walter Munoz, the original owners, Jimmy Naccarato and Ivo Marchetti, cooked their mother’s recipes, and they’re still served today. Marchetti’s mom used to help the two make ravioli. The dish also comes in the form of a scrumptious fried appetizer, cooked crispy and golden on the outside, and filled with warm, veal Bolognese on the inside. Another favorite is the chicken vesuvio dish. The spice-covered chicken bursts with flavor and is served with tender potatoes. It all marinates atop oil that’s cleaned off the plate with bread at the end of the meal.

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Bruna’s Ristorante

Located at: 2424 S Oakley Ave, Chicago, IL 60608

Go Here For: A romantic evening

Be sure to dig to the bottom of the breadbasket at Bruna’s. There lie squares of salty focaccia, made by Chef Marco Uruchima. Uruchima explained that the recipes served at the restaurant, which first opened in 1933, are the same as those used by its founder. Her portrait, the “original Bruna,” Urichima said, hangs over the entrance to the dining room, watching the guests within the dim lighting and rose-colored walls. It’s the kind of atmosphere that makes it feel as though it’s nighttime, even in the middle of the day.

Some of the chef’s favorite dishes include the chicken vesuvio (it takes a while but is worth the wait) and the linguine frutti di mari. The latter is a seafood lover’s dream, covered with copious amounts of mussels, scallops, clams and shrimp. The antipasto platter isn’t something to miss either. Tasty Italian meats and cheeses are garnished with tomatoes, olives and artichokes, and it pairs perfectly with the focaccia and bread.

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Bacchanalia

Located at:  2413 S Oakley Ave, Chicago, IL 60608

Go Here For: The homey, nostalgic vibe and generous portions

Homemade meat sauce and cheeses are layered between firm noodles, served in the shape of a brick and covered in melted mozzarella goodness. This is the lasagna at Bacchanalia, one of their popular dishes. Paula Pieri Bogolin owns the restaurant with her brother, Dante. It was always their father’s dream to open an Italian restaurant. In 1979, he had his chance when the restaurant across the street from their home was up for sale. Today, the successful business maintains its roots in the family. Many recipes come from Bogolin’s grandmothers, who are from Lucca and Pisa. The food is also influenced by the families of their chefs from other areas of Italy, such as Bari.

The traditional meals fit their aesthetic: Green leaves and sparkly lights line arced mirrors along the wall. From its cream-checkered wallpaper, to the paintings of wine bottles, to the white flowers in empty Prosecco bottles that garnish each table, Bacchanalia is as enchanting as it is homey.  

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La Fontanella

Located at: 2414 S Oakley Ave, Chicago, IL 60608

Go Here For: The 1920s inspired-look and the eggplant with a spicy kick

Maria Gamberale finds inspiration for her menu from cooking shows. She and her husband, Gianfranco, are the owners and only cooks at La Fontanella. They worked for the original owners and decided to buy the place from them when they sold it in 1986. The couple kept the original arancini recipe and made everything else their own. One of their best creations is eggplant puttanesca. The dish consists of breaded, crispy eggplant slices topped with spicy tomato sauce and served on a bed of pasta.

“We cook old-fashioned, we cook from scratch,” Maria said, “like I cooked in my house all my life. There’s no shortcuts, there’s no boxes, cans or any processed food in here. Never was, never will.”

Unfortunately, food lovers will have to wait – La Fontanella is temporarily closed for remodeling and is set to reopen in mid-April. The Gamberales are going for a 1920s feel with the new opening, including a gold ceiling, colorful Frank Lloyd Wright–inspired lamps and an art deco-esque bar.

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Ignotz’s Ristorante

Located at: 2421 S Oakley Ave, Chicago, IL 60608

Go Here For: The welcoming atmosphere and dishes named after people

There’s a little red door at the end of a narrow alleyway. When you enter, owner Roger Wroblewski will most likely introduce himself. Refreshing blue and green murals cover the walls. There’s a section on brick with photos of people who have dined at the restaurant. When it’s somebody’s birthday, the entire room sings.  Everyone seems to know each other, and it’s the kind of place that makes even first-timers feel like regulars. When ordering at Ignotz’s, one can’t go wrong with something that has a person’s name in the title. Chicken Olivia, which takes 45 minutes to cook, got its name because Wroblewski’s daughter, Olivia, was born two weeks late.

Then there’s Steak Isabella.

“My little one, for whatever reason since she was little, loved steak, and still to this day,” Wrobleski said. “And I have Veal Alexis after the big one, it’s a little mixture of everything. Kind of like her, she’s a little mixture of all the girls.”

Wroblewski likes naming his dishes after his family members. Even the restaurant itself was named after his father-in-law, Ignatious. The check comes with a literal cherry on top a chocolate-covered one.

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3 Comments

Gail D Garza March 28, 2017 at 5:07 pm

I have been enjoying many lunches, dinners, and events at these lovely, quaint, accommodating, long-established restaurants here for decades. Some of my best memories were spent here. Be sure to visit their annual neighborhood Italian festival during Father’s Day weekend. You will have a fabulous time sampling delicious cuisine from each of these restaurants.

Vegetarian?

Don’t worry. You WON’T go hungry, nor will you leave unsatisfied.

Reply
Steve Barnard March 30, 2017 at 12:56 pm

My grandparents, Bruno and Mabel (Tenebrini) Pasquinelli immigrated to the vicianato in 1915, from the Lucca region (Pescia). Gramps new the original Bruna. Our favorite was always Toscano’s which closed in the 80’s. The family and Bachanalia’s still serve Crossing with chicken liver and anchovy pate.

Reply
Steve Barnard March 30, 2017 at 12:58 pm

Crostini, not Crossing (curse spell check).

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