WICKER PARK WEIRDO

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Drunken Brawl Around the World

Haresh Shah

Surrounded by low rise apartment buildings and single family homes, the Wicker Park feels more like a town square. Named after the brothers Charles and Joel Wicker who in 1868 purchased 80 acres of land along Milwaukee and Damen Avenues and carved out a subdivision with a mix of lot sizes to develop residences that would surround the four acre park.  It is basically a front yard to the people who inhabit one of those homes. Closer to Damen is a field house with gymnasium and meeting rooms. Outside there is a playground, basketball hoops and a baseball diamond and open field for playing soccer or football.  It also hosts all sorts of community activities including craft fairs and open air movie nights. In the middle of the lush gardens is the “centerpiece” fountain sprouting up from he wading pool for kids to frolic in. An ideal urban park in which you can step out of your house and step right in.

Today I have veered off Division and have wandered a few blocks north on Damen. I have parked myself on a bench of the south bound #50 bus stop shelter across from the park at the corner of Damen and Schiller. As the bus approaches the curb, I shake my head, indicating to the driver that I wasn’t waiting for a bus. But it stops in front of me and a man holding a stuffed shopping bag gets off the back door. He looks around as if to survey his environment. Sitting down at the other end of the bench, he puts the bag in the middle of us. Pulling the top of the bag wide open he asks me whether I would like some. I couldn’t quite see what it was in the little bag placed inside the big one. Looked like a paper bag full of peanuts, or what to me appeared like a bunch of yellow cigarette butts. Whatever. I politely decline.

He must have been in his mid-fifties or maybe even early sixties. Disheveled mop of snow white hair, a mustache that reminds me of someone and for some reason I presume him to be of Polish descent. But he speaks impeccable English. Held between his fingers is a mauled cigarette stub. He asks me if I had a light. Then answers his own question: you don’t smoke? He then proceeds to dig into his various pockets. He wore blue jeans and a light colored shirt under a bright turquoise windbreaker. He fumbles into various pockets of his pants and his windbreaker, the side pockets of his jacket and breast pocket of his shirt. Not nervous, just looking a bit frazzled.

‘Of course I can’t find any, because I didn’t have any in the first place.’

‘I guess you just will have to go without smoking that cigarette.’

‘No, I am going to smoke it and then I am going to get drunk. And I am going to live for a hundred and three years.’ You would think he was already drunk or high on something, but nothing on his face or the breath indicates that he were either. Just looked a bit crazed and if I had any apprehensions about continuing our conversation, once I looked at his face, he seemed quite harmless.

Placed next to the bench is a garbage can. He fumbles inside the can to see if there might be a match box in there. No such luck. He turns around and asks:

‘You from India?’

‘Yes, I sure am.

‘From Delhi, Jaipur, Bombay?’

‘I am from Bombay.’

‘I am going to travel the world and also go to India with my daughter.’

‘That’s cool. When?’

‘Oh, yesterday or tomorrow.’

‘Well, yesterday’s gone. So I guess tomorrow then!’

‘But first I am going to get drunk and smoke. By then they would have passed a law which would allow us to smoke and get drunk on the plane. Even the captain would have to be drunk. I wouldn’t fly an airline whose captain wasn’t drunk while flying the plane. What the hell, also the stewardesses and all. We would have one drunken brawl.’ He says all of this to me with a straight face and an impish but earnest smile on his face.

And then he suddenly picks up his shopping bag and stumbles away. He crosses Schiller street and I see him looking inside the garbage can on the other side of the street, stopping a pedestrian and asking for matches and then finally I watch him sitting down around the fountain in the park.

© 2018 Haresh Shah

NEXT WEEK

LETIZIA’S NATURAL BAKERY                                                                                                            Earlier this fall, Letizia’s celebrated its twentieth anniversary with big fan fare. That she has not only survived the rough and tumble days of Division Street, but has grown and prospered with a loyal group of customers for two decades and still going strong is a tribute in itself. What is her secret?

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PODHALANKA

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Lady of the Highlands

Haresh Shah

I must have looked at the sign Podhalanka across the street from the west bound #70 bus stop on the Polish Triangle and must have also walked past the restaurant itself hundreds of times and yet I was never curious in the least to nudge the door open and enter the place even just to check it out. Looking from outside in, what I could see through the mostly covered windows and the doors was a place dark and dingy inside. The long tables draped with the curling plastic covers and generally unkempt look of the place didn’t look too inviting.  And it seemed generally stuck into the devil may care attitude of the communist era. And yet, as I began to look more into doing Down Division, I realized the importance of the Polish Triangle and its relationship to  Division Street, it became inevitable that I had to check out Podhalanka – loosely translated Lady of the Highlands – and find out how it could have become a part of the history of what makes Division Division. What better person to go have dinner with me there than my Polish friend Marek 

I was the first one to arrive. Feeling apprehensive based on the reviews on Yelp, I was fully expecting to be greeted by a pushy middle aged man. No such man to be found. Instead lurking in the background was an elderly lady weaving between two long tables, serving her dinner guests. She waves me in to sit down at one of the empty tables.  Sunk into my chair, I could hardly put my arms over the table top, feeling like a toddler needing a booster seat or a pile of old telephone directories. Soon as Marek arrives, she places the menus and two short glasses filled with red liquid on the table – looking like cheap red wine. We make this in the house. She informs us. Marek declines it, I decide to try it. Some sort of spiced syrupy looking red liquid. Wouldn’t kill me, I think and drink it. Soon we move to the bar with our menus in our hands.

Apprehensively, I order Kotlet Schabowy – breaded pork cutlet and Marek orders Ryba Smazona – fried fish. The meals include soup and salad and come with mashed potatoes and gravy. Just like back home! Muses Marek. Not bad! I mutter. We bring home Pirczen Wieprzowa – roast pork dinner for Eric. Eric raves at every bite he takes. And all of that for less than fifteen dollars! Only thing missing was a chilled mug of Zywiec or Okocim. But no worries, you can bring your own wine and beer. What can be better? A piping hot bowl of their mushroom barley soup! I got a taste of it during one of my follow up visits. The best mushroom barley soup I ever had! I tell her. She is pleased with an “of course” smirk on her face.

As Marek and I sat at the bar savoring our delicious food, my eyes caught sight of a couple of signs that most everyone would have missed. Right across from where we sat, staring at us were two small placards. They said:

KEEP THIS PLACE IN MIND

For A Better One Is Hard To Find

And

THERE IS NO PLACE

JUST LIKE THIS PLACE

Anywhere Near This Place

So This Must Be The Place

I couldn’t help but grin, thinking they sure have a sense of humor. And what a delight it was to chat with the owner/head chef, cute as dickens seventy one years old Helena Madej! After a bit of hesitation, she begins to talk – and smile. Even in her black chef’s apron thrown over a pink knit crew necked top, there was something charming about her. If a bit mischievous, still a very good looking, I couldn’t help but just imagine how hot she must have been in her youth!!

Born in Krakow, Poland in 1947, she is still a feisty lady. If not perfect, she speaks fluent English. Animated and full of vigor, you can’t help but notice a certain impish glint in her eyes and a constant sense of wonderment in her smiles. Helena, married and divorced, has a daughter in her thirties. She came to Chicago in 1981 to join many of her family members, some of whom had come to the U.S. at the turn of the twentieth century in 1905. In 1986, at the height of the concentration of the Polish population in the neighborhood, she took over the existing  Podhalanka, and has not only survived but is still thriving after 32 years of feeding the locals. At the time  it wasn’t easy existing around crime infested three way intersection at Ashland, Milwaukee and Divisionbut I am not afraid. One night around eleven a guy from the neighborhood breaks in. I was alone with just one helper. He demands: Give me money. I shout back at him: I give you nothing. Get out of here, I know who you are. He yells, “you bitch, open the door.” Similarly, a Mexican young man walked in with a knife, she stood her ground and threaten to call police. He promptly exited the restaurant.

I have always wondered what drives people to open a restaurant, one of the riskiest businesses and one that requires twenty four seven involvement and practically no free time. It obviously had to be deep passion and love for what it takes. To that Helena says: I love this business and I love my customers. And I love it that my restaurant provides a place for the Polish people to come together and enjoy home cooked meals.

All those negative reviews on Yelp and other social media had demonized Helena’s nephew Greg Jamka. On my second visit I encountered him as a stern looking man with a deep  gruff voice, closely cropped salt and pepper hair, wearing a red and blue striped t-shirt. His looks sort of confirmed those reviews. But to my astonishment, as I waited for Helena, what I witnessed proved him to be a man so kind and considerate.

Waiting at the table next to mine was a young African American woman. When she walked up to the counter to pick up her take out order, she realized that Podhalanka was a cash only restaurant, which she didn’t have.

‘You live in the neighborhood, don’t you?’

‘I work close by here!’

‘You can stop by tomorrow or sometime in the next days with the money.’

Fumbling into her purse, she pulls out a few dollar bills which she offers to pay. She has only about ten dollars.

‘No problem. I’ll take that. The total is $13.40. You can stop by anytime and pay the rest in the next couple of days.’

Huhn! This nephew, he wasn’t such a devil after all! And I was touched at the kindness of his voice with which he put the young woman at ease!

What more can you expect from a down home neighborhood restaurant?

© 2018 Haresh Shah

PODHALANKA, 1549 West Division Street, Chicago, Ill. 60642 +1 773 486 6655

NEXT WEEK

WICKER PARK WEIRDO

He didn’t seem crazy and or even drunk. All he was looking for was some matches or a lighter to light his cigarette with. And yet, there are times you encounter people, you can’t help but wonder.

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TRUE LOVE

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Just ‘Cause They Are Divorced…

by Haresh Shah

One of the pride and joys of our stretch of Division Street is Humboldt Park, if not the largest, it’s one of the prettiest and family friendly with the music blaring every weekend and barbecue grills sizzling on warm days. The park and its Boathouse fronting the natural water lagoon are the creation of the landscape architect Jens Jensen and Prairie School architect Hugh Garden, is considered to be one of the best examples of Prairie School architecture, not only in Chicago but in the country.

On this dream like overcast fall day, I am sitting on a bench facing the fishing area of  Humboldt Park lagoon, watching its gentle waves ambling towards the Boathouse across the water. Feeling mellow and contemplative, I am savoring the peace and tranquility of the afternoon.

Breaking the spell, I sense a mild stirring on my left. A few feet away I see an elderly woman turning the wheelchair around, occupied by what I perceive to be her disabled husband. They are out for a stroll. Stopping by the bench, she puts the security break on the wheels, and then as a response to something that the man must have muttered, I hear her saying several times, I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I’m sorry while gently caressing and petting his folded arms. Like a mother comforting her poor little baby. I only have the back view of the man and his baseball hat. Having pacified him, she says to him in Spanish, I’m going to sit down for a while over there on the bench.

Sitting down at the edge of the bench, she greets me with Hola with a slight smile on her face and  then pulls out her cell phone to call her daughter. I hear her telling that she has a dentist appointment at 3:15 and that also a doctor’s appointment later in the day or the next day. She arranges with her daughter some details and after a while turns her face towards me and utters:

‘I just can’t abandon him.’

She is talking to me in Spanish. It’s not that unsual for people to presume me being a Hispanic – especially in our pre-dominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood. I happen to speak decent to fluent Spanish. When she realizes I am not really a native Spanish speaker, our conversation switches back and forth between English and Spanish.

The story she tells me is this: ‘I was married to him for years and have four children from him. My parents came to this country from Puerto Rico when I was four months old. He came when he was twenty one. We met here in Chicago and got married. He was living by himself on north Sheridan. He got afflicted with Alzheimer and Parkinson. He also has other ailments and can’t do anything by himself. I live here near Fullerton and Pulaski, it was too far for me to go to his place everyday and take care of him. I moved him here in Casa Central.’ Up until then, I had thought of Casa Central to be a center for socializing for the neighborhood’s Latinos, meaning the Puerto Ricans.

‘No, it’s really a nursing home. But there is no such thing as good nursing home. You’ve really got to watch over them. Someone’s got to constantly tell them what to do. I come here every single day, make sure his needs have been taken care of. When I come, I ask him, Pee pee? Kaka? He is in diapers and needs to be changed more frequently than they normally do.

‘I just retired and was thinking I will do this and I will do that now that I’ll have time, but now all my time is taken up by him, even though we have been divorced for sometime, I just can’t leave him like this.’ She doesn’t tell me anything about when and why they got divorced. Whether either of them had been remarried. I don’t interrupt, just listen.

‘Of course not, after all he is the father of your four children.’ I say.

‘Yes, the children also come to visit, but they have their own lives and their own work. So it’s not possible for them to be around as often and my youngest daughter just had her third child only three months old. So her hands are full.’

She needed to unload this on someone other than a family member, and perhaps found a sympathetic pair of ears in me. Quite attractive for whatever age she was, well preserved and taken care of. I could feel her pain but not in a way that would make you feel guilty. She was not looking for sympathy, just being a matter of fact and doing her best and doing what she must have felt to be the right thing to do.

As I walked back home, it got me thinking about how life can change and turn upside down at a stroke of something like Alzheimer or Parkinson or a a Stroke. And you have absolutely no control over what strikes you.

© 2018 Haresh Shah

NEXT WEEK

PODHALANKA                                                                                                                                      Lady Of The Highlands                                                                                                                    A hundred years ago, most Polish immigrants settled in and around what is now Wicker Park. The crossroads of Ashland, Milwaukee and Division Streets formed the Polish Triangle, and Division as far away as California came to be known as Polish Broadway. Since then the Poles and most of the local restaurants have relocated to the North and the Southwest of the city.  Now more than three and a half decades later, Podhalanka still remains on Division at the Polish Triangle and is flourishing under Helena Madej, its Lady of the Highlands.

JOE’S WINE CELLAR

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Red Beret And Pony Tail

Haresh Shah

Soon after it opened in June of 2012, I ran into the owner Joe, futzing around on the sidewalk outside his Joe’s Wine Cellar. Though not quite familiar with the shop yet, I was quite impressed at how compact and yet how organized and how classy it looked and felt. During our brief conversation, I remember telling him that if he could manage to survive for the first three years, he may have hit upon the right idea in the right neighborhood at the right time. Joe sounded very upbeat and optimistic: I am sure I can pull it off. Plus what I have going for me is that I know the landlord… and then he lets it out with an impish smirk, I own the building!!!

‘Well, in that case…’ and I smirked back. We talked a bit about wines and I may even have let him talk me into buying a card for his signature WineStation. A lovely way to try out several sip sized wines before deciding on a bottle to take home. Better yet, for $10.- service fee let them have cork it and pour yourself a glass or two and savor it right on the site – which since then has grown into the stainless steel topped long tasting tables in the fashion of zinc bars of the French bistros. And when it’s nice outside, Joe has even set up a spacious side walk patio. As an added incitement, you can now also order an assortment of cheese, charcuterie and fresh baguette. How can it get any better?

Life long Chicago area native – Elmhurst, Libertyville and now Gold Coast, Joe Dalton, 61, was a telecommunications sales executive for thirty years. He began his career at Sprint in the mid-80’s and retired from Quest Communications as VP wholesale sales – a position he held for more than a decade. His jobs took him all over the world and while entertaining or being entertained, exposed him to  some of the best food and wines. When around 2007, with the industry consolidating, Joe decided that if Quest changed hands, it would be time to retire. His dream was to open a wine shop, grow his hair long and have it dangle into a pony tail, put on a red beret, sit behind the cash register and collect cash!!! Wrong!!! My wife ruled that out!

Soon he began to shop for a property to buy and settled on the six units building on Division Street in Wicker Park. Five of those units are residential, which brings in income and then he would still have the store front for his wine shop. Soon as Quest changed hands in 2011, Joe promptly retired and began to make concrete plans for the wine shop he would open. A year later, in June of 2012, Division Street saw the arrival of Joe’s Wine Cellar, sans pony tail and red beret.

‘Why Division?’ I asked.

‘Two reasons. The first, I loved the wide side walks. And second the demographics. I did also consider Halsted Street in Lincoln Park, but that crowd already into their forties had their own wine guy. At the time, average age group around here was about 27. Perfect place and the most desirable demographics to start and grow the wine business – taping into the crowd graduating from their craft beer phase. And you could just feel the energy!’

‘I am by no means a wine connoisseur, or knew much about wines, other than the fact that I liked wine and I knew what I liked and what I didn’t. I was never a wine collector either. That changed during a 1986 ski vacation in Lake Tahoe. We were having a dinner at Izabella Ristorante and the waiter recommended we try Far Niente, a California wine.  We ordered a bottle each of Cabernet and Chardonnay. And we just fell in love with it. When we returned home, I ordered cases of each of them and eventually ended up with the cellar containing 800 bottles. Since then  it has become more expensive, but as much as I still love it, just can’t afford to drink it every day.

But Joe’s is by no means a neighborhood cheap wine place. Even though he always has on the floor a barrel of inexpensive wines that cost around $10.- a bottle, the most of his clientele prefer slightly upscale wines, which is what his selection caters to.

‘What do  you tell your customers when they don’t know what they want.’

‘Though there are some ground rules, as for pairing wines with the food goes, I tell them to drink what they like.’

‘Your personal favorites other than Far Niente?’

‘That’s a hard one. But I love all Rhône wines. Châteauneuf-du-Pape. I like French Syrah, and Rousanne and Marsanne grapes. I am partial to wines from Provence. And I love Muscadet from Loir Valley.’ We spend a while talking about Sauvignon Blancs and how most of them go so well with fresh oysters and other seafood, but some in his opinion taste too citrusy and some poorly made ones even taste like cat piss!

Moving onto more practical aspects of the business, pointing at the wine station he says that this turned out to be a lucky move. He first got the idea for it from a wine shop in Avignon, France. Basically a wine preservation system that pours wines by glass. This way people get to try many different wines without having to buy a bottle and have fun doing it. It’s working out very well for us.

At the end of the day, it’s a business like any other. But Joe said he would never recommend  anyone to go into wine business if looking for high returns. Even though I must admit that we have been highly successful and broke even within the first six months; it’s a life style business. You make a decent living and have fun doing it!!!  I will certainly drink to that. Prost!

© Haresh Shah 2018

Joe’s Wine Cellar, 2108 W. Division Street, Chicago, Ill. 60622 ● 773 303 4884 www.joeswinecellar.com

NEXT WEEK

TRUE LOVE

Just ‘Cause They Are Divorced…

A story of how divorce is not the end of love and relationship. Just because a couple is divorced, it doesn’t stop them from still keep loving and caring for each other. An encounter in Humboldt Park.

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THE YELLOW PAGE HANDYMAN

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Always A Bridesmaid. Never A Bride

Haresh Shah

When I first moved back to Chicago and needed a handyman to help me with installing my sliding shower door and the ceiling fans, I found Antonio Luna on Yellow Pages. Remember those brick heavy door stoppers? Though he tells me, now most of his new clients come from Yelp! Times they’re a changin’J. A Puerto Rican, he grew up in Humboldt Park  – practically right around the corner, though he now lives farther north of here in Roger’s Park. He remembers the early days of his countrymen occupying the near north-west neighborhoods of Chicago – containing of Wicker Park, West Town and pre-dominantly Puerto Rican, Humboldt Park – the area mainly sandwiched between the high flying Puerto Rican flags made of steel pipes, firmly posted on the east at North Artesian and on the west at North Mozart Avenues, arch over West Division Street aka Paseo Boricua (Puerto Rican Walk). The reason the flags are made of steel is to honor thousands of Puerto Ricans who came from the island between  1946 and 1966 to work at Chicago’s steel mills. The masts are 55 feet tall and the flags span 56 feet across Division Street. Each of them weighing 30 tons and can withstand 75 miles an hour winds.

When a couple of months ago I mentioned to Tonio about my Down Division project, I had no clue how Division Street has a history not only of the crime and the gang warfare, but that Paseo Boricua, mere five houses south from where I live was the hot bed of the political unrest and riots forty some years earlier. Tonio begins to reminisce about how he witnessed the riots of June 12 -14, 1966. The day when the Puerto Rican Day Parade that began on State Street downtown Chicago – all joyous and colorful, broke out into the devastating riot on Division Street at Damen Avenue, in reaction to the Chicago cop Thomas Munyon, having shot in the leg the Puerto Rican young man, Arcelis Cruz.

The years  that followed saw more of the unrest with the gang warfare and the political tensions over the U.S. control of Puerto Rico. The mid seventies saw a spike in violence with bombings and years of protests.

Something I could hardly begin to fathom, having watched the Puerto Rican Day Parades of the last ten years and how they all have been peaceful fun and frolicking. People milling around and dancing in their vibrant multi-colored outfits, dressed up in Puerto Rican motifs – hundreds of Puerto Rican flags flying, hoards of families watching the floats filled with celebrants draped in flamboyant folkloric costumes, followed by a large fleet of awesome vintage automobiles followed by hundreds of motor bikes vrooming their powerful machines. The happy noise and the revelry. Proud Puerto Ricans and other locals alike watching or marching in the parade, big happy smiles plastered over  everyone’s faces.

I mention to Tonio what I had heard about the gang the Latin Disciples and how they would disrupt and terrorize.

‘I may even have been one of those gang members.’

‘Were you a Disciple?’

‘No, I was a part o the rival gang, the Latin Kings.’

Seeing that I was still trying to process the information, he adds a disclaimer: You know, I was just in my teens and it was one of the things you just did when you’re that age – you know, when you’re that young, you want to belong. A brief pause later, he continues: Never participated in any of the riots or shoot outs. I was not that colorful a person in my teens. Always a bridesmaid never a bride.’ And I believe him because Antonio I know is a gentle soul and doubt if he could even kill a fly, let alone hurt innocent people!

And I got married at seventeen and had three children in the following six years – my oldest  son is fifty years old now. He refers to his wife of the time as “the mother of my children”. Since then he is very happily married to his current wife, Lucia.

He continues with a distance look in his eyes: I still remember the riots breaking out on Division Street during the Puerto Rican Parade. There were armies of police and shootings. The cars were turned over and burned. Forty five buildings on fire.

© 2018 Haresh Shah

Illustration: Mural on N. Campbell Street at Division

 

NEXT WEEK

JOE’S WINE CELLAR

When I sailed back to the US in the fall of 1975, I drove cross country from New York to California. During my stop over in Chicago, I ordered a glass of white wine at a neighborhood bar. I almost fell off my chair when the bartender asked:  straight up or on the rocks? Who would have known that forty some years later, we would have a sophisticated neighborhood shop specializing in quality wines? Filled with the passion and the devotion of likes of Joe Dalton.

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Via CARDUCCI

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Home Away From Home

Haresh Shah

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

www.viacarduccichicago.com

NEXT WEEK

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.

WHY DIVISION?

WHY DIIVISION 1 18

Because..Because…Because….

Haresh Shah

Because, that’s where I live!

Because it’s the street where I go for my daily walks. Something I started doing on January 1, 2000 while still living in Prague. On that first day of the millennium, my friend Jan Heemskerk and I took a walk deep into the woods near his home in Alkmaar, Holland. Walking is one of he best ways to stay in shape, proclaimed Jan. I took his words to the heart and since then that’s what I have been doing to stay fit. As refreshing as it was walking into the woods, plodding through the mud soaked trails and soaking up the fresh air, I basically am a city creature. Having born and grown up in  Mumbai, walking along the sea shore is an activity every Mumbaiwallah undertakes soon as the sun goes down or at crack of the dawn. The practice I  have continued all through my life, be it in London or in a little village of Schutterwald in Germany’s Black Forest. Jan’s bon mot added a whole new dimension to my casual strolling.

I moved back to Chicago in October of 2006, and in Division Street I found a perfect “trail” to keep pounding the pavements. It is a long, straight and broad street with the widest sidewalks of any city in the world that I can think of. It stretches for 16 miles (28 kilometers) from Lake Michigan in the east to Oak Park and beyond to Thatcher Woods in the west of the city. The stretch I must have walked hundreds – thousands of times lays between North Maplewood and North Ashland/North Milwaukee near Nelson Algren Fountain, commonly  known as the Polish Triangle, the area once also referred to as Polish Downtown and Polish Broadway.  

Because it is the street made notoriously famous by Nelson Algren’s National Book Award winning novel, The Man with the Golden Arm and also Never Come Morning. You can almost feel the ghosts of Algren’s downtrodden and desperate characters still haunting Division Street and its surroundings – the places they once inhabited.

Because my memories and the relationship to the street go back to my early days in Chicago to the summer of 1968 and four years that followed. Because I prowled the eastern stretch of Division at Rush and State streets with my Time Inc. buddies in now what have become to be the landmarks such as Mothers, Shenanigans and Butch McGuire’s – the late late night bars and discos. All three of them  still exist and are thriving fifty years later. Even though I no longer hang out at those locales of my youth, mere a dozen blocks west is where Division comes to life on a stretch between Milwaukee/Ashland on the east and Western on the west. The  places like Inn Joy, Fatpour and Boundary counter balance the indulgence and decadence of young and wanna be young. Not to mention a whole slew of excellent restaurants and cafes that dot the strip.

This is the stretch that has become a part of my day to day life in the last eleven years. Roberto  Clemente High School and Saint Mary’s Hospital are only a stones throw away on Division from where I live. It bursts into life as early as six in the morning with the pungent aroma of coffee wafting in the air from one of at least a dozen cafes that jolt you awake with a shot of caffeine and freshly baked croissant and pastry. At seven pops open the store front physical therapy center Athletico. Then small convenience shops, and Nature Yoga Sanctuary. Chase and other banks start their day at nine. Come around ten’o clock, open all boutique shops. An hour later all  restaurants and some bars. Whatever has remained shuttered up until then, springs to life at five and the good times begin to roll. Batch by batch, life unfolds and in similar fashion folds back just like opening and closing of lotus.

Walking is how I get the sense and the sights and the sounds and the smells of  what makes each one of those places what they are. It is how I find new places – run into people – some of them over and over again, Many of them I don’t even know names of, but we exchange greetings – buenos dias and como estas Papi? Or simply a Hi. There is certain amount of recognition and familiarity in seeing the same faces over and over again. Walking is how I discover new restaurants and cafes. New shops. New buildings coming up and being torn down. Experience first hand the transformation of the street that seems to be in a constant motion.

Although there is Division Street in Chicago, the title of this book is metaphorical. Wrote Chicago legend, Studs Terkel in his prefatory notes to his book Division Street AMERICA, back  in 1967. So now fifty one years later – metaphorically speaking, Division Street still embodies down home America.

And because, because, because…

© 2018 Haresh Shah

Next Week

Via Carducci la Sorella

My home away from home – the restaurant I discovered during my daily walk the very week it was opened and has since then become my all time favorite. What makes Via Carducci click is Giovanni Scalzo – and his amazing journey through starting out as a dishwasher at a pizzeria to becoming one of the most successful restaurateur on Division.