Chair by Chair

Haresh Shah

                                       Life is short. Eat dessert first. Jacques Torres                                                                                 Stressed Spelled Backwards is Desserts! Fabio Sorano

The year Letizia’s opened back in the fall of 1998, the landscape around the shop was barren. The two identical corner buildings across from each other at Leavitt didn’t exist. There was a convenience store across the street, which is still there and a few houses north east of there was the recently closed pawn shop. There was a doctor’s office and a block down on the diagonally opposite side of the street where Inn Joy is now, was an antique furniture shop owned by a Palestinian couple with four kids. And that was about it. The neighborhood in general was deserted, desolate and dangerous. Six months after they opened, Letizia was held up at gun point and robbed. Why then you may ask, the recent Italian immigrants would want to open a café in middle of the mayhem?

Her three children, Fabio, Lorenzo and Lavinia, were already in Chicago – each one of them having attended Loyola University and seemed they were here to stay. Following in their footsteps, Maria Letizia Pietroboni Sorano, 72, a language teacher who taught Latin and Italian and her Neurologist husband Vincenzo Sorano, aka Enzo  arrived in the States in 1992 from Piazza de la Minerva in Rome. Letizia taught Latin at DePaul University for a year and Enzo worked as Neuro-Radiologist at the Cook County Hospitals.

While teaching at DePaul, Letizia realized that the students in America were different, in that they were quite disrespectful – a certain shock from how teachers were revered back in Italy. Furthermore, her heart no longer was into teaching. What she really wanted to do all along was to bake cookies and cakes. What am I doing here? She asked herself. Baking had been her lifelong passion. Thus began the idea of starting a small bakery in their new country.

When her older son Fabio, at the time 27 years old, suggested the location on Division Street –   she wasn’t so sure. They lived in the non descript but safe suburb of Des Plains, and what she saw and heard about how dangerous the neighborhood can be, and also realizing that it wasn’t far from the notorious Cabrini Green project, she had her apprehensions. True. But Fabio saw the future of the neighborhood and somehow managed to convince his mother to take the plunge. The mother and the son joined forces and opened the doors of Letizia’s.

Opened in the early spring, first it was just a small bakery. It would provide high quality natural products – cakes and cookies. Among them Crostata, the classic Italian crusted tart and pie – something she knew best how to make. Soon she would learn how to bake American cookies, muffins and among others, traditional cheese cakes. They began by supplying wholesale to Neiman Marcus Epicure on Michigan Avenue followed by the Whole Food. Not a bad start. And yet they felt that something vital was missing. Face to face interaction with “real” people. Soon they decided to switch to retail. It would also be more profitable and rewarding, being able to talk to people.

In the fall they expanded the bakery into a cozy little café, about half the size of what it is today. With little help from her friends, she slowly turned her bakery into the place funky and warm and comfortable, in the image of the Sixties. Strewn with mismatched thrown together furniture.

First came a set of antique chairs with rounded backs and cushioned seats. Compliments of the antique shop opposite in a friendly barter. In exchange for several chairs, the Palestinian asked  for four cakes, elaborately created by Letizia and her crew. She stacked the chairs against the bare brick walls with small café tables. Then came a living room set, two love seats upholstered in grey velvet. The solid wood top resting on upside down  fruit baskets served as the coffee table. Bordering them, she placed small black tables and rattan chairs.

Soon came two futon sofa-cum-beds covered in burgundy satin and thrown over them were a couple of Indian shawls. This time around, all of the coffee table was made of solid wood. And then there was an imposing life-size plaster figure, sitting by the window with dark liquid chocolate spilled on its knees. No bartering of any kind for them. Just the goodness of her friends and customer’s hearts. I must say that the Americans are very generous people. Us Europeans are not so. More than anything else, I got their love and support. They wanted me to succeed. I am thankful to them from the bottom of my heart.  I, also being an immigrant and having experienced similar generosity, totally agree with her.

And then Letizia’s Natural Bakery grew and grew. What is her secret? You may ask. Among many other attributes, the key word is natural. Letizia and her son Fabio – her partner in the crime, swear by and are proud of their uncompromising use of natural ingredients. You couldn’t have possibly missed the round red circle in the mode of a traffic sign with a slash across the word MARGARINE at the top of their entrance. Whatever you imbibe in the place is pure butter! They use real flour, extra virgin olive oil and water. Never use stabilizer in their whipping cream. No high fructose corn syrup or FDA banned trans fats. Use only clean healthy pure chocolate. No wonder everything tastes so SUPER YUMMY.

The day it opened, she took in all of $40. But once the word spread, more and more people began to show up – majority of them from nearby Saint Mary’s Hospital. At times lining up outside the café. The early customers were artists and other creative types. Now the crowd comprises of a whole mélange of characters.

Retailing was a totally different experience for me. In the beginning I was embarrassed even to ask for money from the customers for something I loved to do. As she says this, I could see on her face that if she had it her way, she would probably want to have people come in and treat themselves to the place and the delicacies and leave with a big smile of satisfaction on their faces.

And treat she did on Letizia’s 20th anniversary celebration that took place in the café’s spacious flower filled courtyard, complete with old fashioned gas lamps and an Italian quartet performing Vola re ho ho ho ho, Cantare ho ho ho ho. And there was a constant stream of cornucopia of delicacies and Italian wines flowing as she said BIG THANK YOU to us – her loyal customers, her friends and her family.

© 2018 Haresh Shah

Letizia’s Natural Bakery, 2144 W. Division Street, Chicago, Ill. 60622 + 1 773 342 1022 http://www.superyummy.us/


MARIA OF DIVISION STREET                                                                                                  Everyone’s Dolly                                                                                                                                 If  you walk Division Street as frequently as I do, you can’t miss this  vintage woman sitting on a rickety bench outside Wicker Car Wash, contently puffing on her cigarette. Your first thought would be, her being some sad pauper bidding her time. That is; until one day you begin to talk with her.

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