Home Away From Home
Via Carducci la Sorella opened on Division Street in the summer of 2007, just eight months after I had returned to Chicago after nine years living in Prague. I discovered the place almost immediately during my routine daily walk. It was a sweltering 90+ degrees (30 + celsius) day and as I was walking past the crowd sitting outside, I suddenly felt an urge to take a break. I stopped for a glass of Chardonnay, and stayed for a plate of their down home delicious pasta. If my memory is not failing me, I was greeted by the Bulgarian beauty Marianne who tended the bar as well played occasional hostess and was also the manager of the restaurant. I was served by Carlos (Perez), who just celebrated his eleventh birthday with the restaurant.
It was like love at first sight. Since then it has become my home away from home, so much so that I have taken there every overseas visitor, every family member and every friend. The reasons are obvious. The food and service are consistently great, the ambience is cozy and intimate. And totally relaxing because as opposed to majority of restaurants in the United States, who thrive on “turning over” tables, at Carducci you never feel hurried out of there. Thus making it the place most conducive for long drawn out meals and animated conversations. Must have something to do with the 61 year old owner – the first generation Italian, Giovanni Scalzo.
Often confused with the actor Stanley Tucci, Giovanni is his own man. In my observation, he is the man with iron fist in a velvet glove. The man with good business acumen and sternness, he is also kind and considerate. No wonder, in a business with the most turnover of human resources, majority of his staff has been with him since the very inception of he restaurant. Because I treat them well, says Giovanni with pride and modesty.
His family ties in the States go back to the early 1900s, when his uncles came to America under Il Richiamo sponsorship. Soon as they landed in New York, they were given Green Cards so that they can start working right away. While other uncles went to Omaha and onto Des Moines, Iowa, uncle Benny came to live in Chicago. Giovanni, born and brought up in what is defined as the toe of Italy’s boot, Calabria is the picture post card pretty region of southern Italy with its beaches and mountains. It is also renowned for its rustic regional cuisine.
Giovanni came to this country in 1971 as a teenager and lived with his uncle Benny in the predominantly Polish and Italian neighborhood, at the time concentrated around Pulaski and North Avenue. He enrolled at the Orr High school, majority of students there were Latinos and Blacks – only 10% of the pupils were whites, made up mainly of the Polish and the Italians.
While going to school, he took a job as a dishwasher at the local Vito’s Pizzeria on West North Avenue. The owners Frank and Nick taught Giovanni basics of sauces and also how to carve meat and shared other practical tips on making a pizza. At some point Nick decided to move on to open a new place and offered Giovanni his 50% of Vito’s. At the time Giovanni was also enrolled at UIC to study Architectural Design. But he loved the restaurant business and eventually dropped out of the school.
As he happily flipped pizzas, he met his future wife, Jennifer Marie Castillo, a teletype rep who lived in the building next to the pizzeria and would come frequently to treat herself to a slice. They got married in 1984. Their daughter Alessandra was born in 1991. She is now 27 years old and is to be married next year. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Ever entrepreneurial, Giovanni opened North Avenue Cut Rate Liquor at North and Austin. While he was busy working at Vito’s, someone torched the liquor store, burning it down to the ground. Pragmatically, he decided it was time to move on. In 1984 he opened a restaurant called Papacini in the western suburb of Maywood, close to the Loyola Medical School. The place became extremely popular with the students.
But Giovanni had always loved the Lincoln Park neighborhood. It reminded him a lot of Italy. Especially the areas around Halsted and Diversey Parkway. Not too far, there was a hot dog stand on Fullerton near Southport. He bought the place from the previous owner. Across the street was a small place called Restaurante Stefani. He opened there the first Via Carducci in 1996, named after the street he grew up on in Calabrian village Adami. A classic mom and pop operation in which Jennifer played the dual roles of the hostess as well as the waitress. Giovanni assumed the role of the chef with only one assistant cook helping him. After the first write ups in Chicago Tribune and Chicago Magazine, he started getting a lot of walk in traffic. The success of Fullerton site prompted him to open a second location.
Giovanni had always liked the stretch of Division Street and the very spot where he would open second Via Carducci. The allure of the location between North Wolcott and North Damen Avenue was it’s thriving neighborhood with it’s young demographics, and yes, the wide sidewalks. Every European’s dream of owning a restaurant with a spacious outdoor sitting. I would often drive by and stop my car across the street to look at the café that was here, which was up for rent, and then there was also Milk & Honey next to it as it still is. A Chicago cop owned and still owns the building, but Giovanni was able to work out a mutually beneficial long term lease with the owner.
He went to work and put in two hundred thousand dollars into renovating the space to make it as cozy and home like as it is today. To the original name Via Carducci, he added la Sorella, which means the sister – to honor the wonderful home cooking of his mother and her sisters – his aunts. Their group photo hangs on the western wall of the restaurant. The place took off to a great start. We were busy right away. Reminiscing, Giovanni continues: Back in Italy, Dad worked a farm which grew produce and we had a vineyard. Mom baked bread. We had chickens in the yard and we ate fresh eggs. Because of my childhood relationship to the nature and the produce, it comes naturally to me to give to my guests the best of what nature has to offer and to “feed back.” Spoken like a true Italian Mama!
© 2018 Haresh Shah
VIA CARDUCCI La Sorella, 1928 W. Division Street, Chicago, Ill. 60614 ● 773 252 2244
THE YELLOW PAGE HANDYMAN
Does anyone remember those brick heavy yellow pages? The Google of the days in not too far of a past. That’s how I found an all rounder handyman who grew up around Division Street. An eye witness to the 1966 Division Street riots.