The street appears frozen in time. If you stood at 24th Street and stared south down Oakley Avenue, the view probably doesn't look that different from 30 years ago. This is the heart of the Heart of Chicago neighborhood.
On this stretch of Oakley there's an honorary street sign named for a community hero: Vito Marzullo Avenue, after the late, legendary alderman. His 33-year reign in the ward came at a time when the neighborhood makeup was mainly Italian.
Here, in fact, was Chicago's "Little Italy" before Taylor Street grabbed the moniker. Italian immigrants settled here in the late 19th century, along with many Eastern Europeans, when the McCormick Harvesting Machine Co. and Hines Lumber Co. were the area's most important employers.
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2421 South Oakley Avenue, Chicago, IL 60608, USA
2413 South Oakley Avenue, Chicago, IL 60608, USA
2435 South Western Avenue, Chicago, IL 60608, USA
2424 South Oakley Avenue, Chicago, IL 60608, USA
Later, the Sicilians would settle north along Taylor Street. The families that stayed in the Heart of Chicago were mostly northern Italians. (Its boundaries, said 25th Ward Ald. Danny Solis, are from Western Avenue to Ashland Avenue, and Cermak Road to Blue Island Avenue.) Around the 1970s, many Italian families moved north and west to the suburbs, and the neighborhood became predominantly Hispanic.
But the vestiges of its Italian past stayed in the form of restaurants. Today, half a dozen Italian restaurants anchor the two blocks between 24th and Coulter streets. Each June on Father's Day weekend, they bring their restaurants outdoors for the Oakley Festa Pasta Vino, the Italian-American street festival dating back about 20 years.
"There's still a strong sense of identity to be called Heart of Chicago and not (nearby) Pilsen," said Solis, who grew up in the area. "Part of that legacy is being carried by these restaurants and the memories of its owners."
Il Vicinato: Here's how Il Vicinato owner Felipe Munoz recounts the story: There once was a lady from Lucca, Tuscany, who took to the streets on Chicago's Lower West Side to sell her homemade veal ravioli. This was decades ago, an Old World recipe brought over from Italy. One of her sons would open a restaurant near 25th and Western Avenue, now long gone, and another son opened Il Vicinato a block up the street. It's at Il Vicinato where the veal ravioli endures 31 years on, stuffed and crimped by hand several times each week. The key is in its dough, less eggy and less firm than other ravioli, with a texture one could bite through without a lot of give. It glides like a soup dumpling. There is a rustic, made-by-nonna quality to these wrinkled pillows the size of business cards, and the ground beef sauce ladled atop is hearty and meat-generous. Three decades on, no dish at Il Vicinato sells better, and it's no surprise.
La Fontanella: The family that created this restaurant in 1971 moved to Phoenix and still operates a La Fontanella restaurant there. Here, however, the 38-seat restaurant is run by third owners, Franco and Maria Gamberale, who owned Gianfranco's in Old Town before buying this property in 1986. "We sold our home in Berwyn," Maria says, "and moved here." The stuccoed walls are lined with signed celebrity photos, from Adlai Stevenson to John Wayne to Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. The menu warns that chicken Vesuvio, which is cooked to order, takes 45 minutes, and the Gamberales aren't kidding; stave off the hunger pangs with the antipasto for two (feeds four) and/or the baked artichokes, one of La Fontanella's go-to offerings at Festa Pasta Vino. Do not miss the eggplant puttanesca (if you order it, Maria will ask if you want the anchovy; the correct answer is "yes") or the veal sorrentina, and because entrees (excuse me, secondi) include soup or salad, the minestrone is what you want.
Bruna's Ristorante: The Pump Room, White Palace Grill, Gene & Georgetti — Bruna's Ristorante has the distinction of predating those all. Bruna Cani was a Michigan-born Tuscan who left the restaurant Orsi & Cani (Bear & Dog) to open her own place across the street, said owner Luciano Silvestri. There Bruna's stands, 81 years in 2014, as the grand dame of Italian restaurants along Oakley. "People don't come here to see and be seen," said the Siena, Italy-born Silvestri, its owner since 1980. "They come here to have good food and a bottle of wine for reasonable money." Indeed, to step inside Bruna's is to time-travel to bygone days: big plates, oil paintings hung in muted lighting and eager owners ready to proclaim "best in the city!" to just about every dish offered. As with all restaurants of the ilk, there's little in the way of menu turnover. Its oldest dish just might be its Sunday slow-roast chicken, a classic preparation with sage, rosemary and garlic. It's a Bruna Cani recipe, older than Pizzeria Uno or Manny's have been around. "Some of the dishes, they taste good, people know it, we sell them," Silvestri said. "Why kick them out?"
Miceli's Deli: When it opened in 1981, Lou Miceli's place was strictly a grocery store and deli, and he made sausages in-house. As the neighborhood changed, demand changed, and in 2006 Miceli decided to promote his cooking ability. "I took out a grocery aisle and put in three tables," he says. "Then another, then another." Now there is one remaining grocery aisle, stocked with milk, soda, pasta, bread, olive oil, canned tuna and a freezer case, and 125 seats for locals in search of counter-service breakfast and lunch. Breakfast is available at 8 a.m., but Miceli's subs, sandwiches, pastas and blue-plate specials such as meatloaf and barbecue chicken are available as early as 9:30. The place shuts down by 4:30 p.m., occasionally earlier, and there are no Saturday or Sunday hours. Given the bare-bones look of the place, it's not surprising that carryout and catering make up the lion's share of Miceli's business, but there's something pleasant about sitting in one of the banquet-style chairs, digging into such hefty items as the meatball sandwich — a challenge to spatter-free eating — or the piping-hot and hearty pasta e fagiole soup that an earlier generation would call "pasta fazool." Now that's amore.
Bacchanalia: This cozy 65-seater opened in 1978, but the Pieri family dates Bacchanalia from 1979, when they assumed ownership. Mom Noemi still hand-makes the ravioli, though siblings Paula and Dante run the place day to day. Pretty diamond-pattern wallpaper, mirrored and lit arched alcoves, fresh flowers and a sound system offering a steady stream of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Jerry Vale and more set the atmosphere. Tender fried calamari is way above average among the starters, and any main course with "Bacchanalia" in the name will be a hit, though no two are alike. Chicken Bacchanalia is a colorful variation of chicken Vesuvio with sausage and red, yellow and green peppers; risotto Bacchanalia is fortified with blue cheese, Gorgonzola, asparagus and chicken breast. Dante's wine list offers Italian and Californian wines at very attractive prices. Open seven days a week (lunch Monday-Friday), Bacchanalia offers valet parking every day but Monday. Cash only; ATM in the bar.
Ignotz Ristorante: Roger Wroblewski remembers the words his wife, Joan, uttered when told he bought a restaurant: "Are you (bleepin') kidding me?" Joan had a valid point. The only cooking experience Roger had was in a kitchen of a Woolworth's back when there were Woolworth's. But he asked her to think back to the veal limone he cooked while courting her. "I can do this," he said. "Give me a shot." That was 17 years and a lot of chicken Vesuvios ago. Ignotz, named for Joan's father, Ignatius, is a top-down family affair. Each of the Wroblewski's three daughters has a dish in their honor: Olivia, born two weeks past her due date, has the roast chicken in her name (because it takes 45 minutes to come out of the oven). True, it's a familiar menu rooted in old-school Italian-Americana, so one way Ignotz distinguishes itself is with the meal's bookends: a roasted head of garlic with bread and olive oil to start, chocolate-covered cherries with the check. Ignotz also serves the single-most tender fried calamari you'll encounter in Chicago.