Few Italian restaurants in Chicago maintain the kind of cozy living room ambiance still alive in these four old-timey Chicago institutions. The words "family-owned" may be overused in some circles, but not by Chicago diners. When locals find a restaurant that makes them feel at home, they show their loyalty.
If this local favorite home-style Italian restaurant is good enough for Al Pacino when he's in town, it's good enough for anybody. Joey Mondelli opened La Scarola in 1996 after shuttering another restaurant in Wrigleyville with an illustrious clientele that included Robert De Niro, Bill Murray, and the Sinatra family. La Scarola specializes in southern Italian food with lots of white wine and fresh tomato sauce. Mondelli learned to cook from his grandmother. He made his rounds as a bartender through the 1970s in the Gold Coast where he first made contact with Frank Sinatra.
The atmosphere will have you chatting up your fellow diner after a glass of house wine and then have you waddling out with a full and happy stomach, that is; if you get a table. Make sure you have a reservation or you might find yourself waiting outside. Richard's Bar next door has long been the unofficial waiting area for eager diners. Don't expect to find many out-of-towners here. As one diner mentioned, his date was interrupted by the band Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Johnny Depp counts the restaurant as one of his favorites.
If anyone tells you there are no Italians left in Chicago's Little Italy, they are wrong. Mario, owner of the famous Mario's Italian Lemonade on Taylor street, recommended Tufano's Vernon Park Tap when asked where he eats in the neighborhood. It's just a few blocks north of Taylor St. If you're near the Mag Mile, take the 157 Streeterville/Taylor St. bus. His seasonal Italian ice is always busy with locals grasping for a taste of his naturally flavored Italian ice with classic lemon, melon, peach, and more. Tufano's has been serving its family Italian recipes from the same building since 1930, before Mario's stand began producing this flavorful cup in 1954.
Tufano's passed through three generations. The sister and daughter of current owner Joe DiBuono, can sometimes be seen serving tables. Diners consider the lemon chicken at Tufano's a must-order item. In 2008, Tufano's received American Classics Award from the James Beard Foundation and was featured in HGTV's Diners Drive-ins & Dives.
Thankfully, Joseph Tomaska, the grandson of Papa Milano who was the first restaurateur to introduce lasagna to the Chicago public, opened a new restaurant in Old Town named after their grandmother when the former Papa Milano restaurant from 1919 was literally demolished to build a Barney's department store. I can't explain the devastation me and my friends felt when we arrived for dinner at a construction site. Since then, I've been looking to find a place to restore the nostalgia I once felt for the place I had taken many first dates. The Milano's recipes have returned with their famous thin crust, Neapolitan-style pizza and spinach bread as well as a full bar with Mama Milano's in Old Town.
I know of no other restaurant more nostalgic of Chicago's golden age than Club Lago, opened in 1952. Brothers GianCarlo and Guido Nardini, the Nardini Brothers are the third generation to own this nautical themed Italian restaurant - "lago," meaning lake in Italian. Don't miss the oil painting of Richard J. Daley, the first of the Daley family to rule with an iron fist as Mayor of Chicago. This is where he famously took his three martini lunches. His portrait sits atop the long oak wood bar where diners get a drink while they wait for a table. The restaurant was featured in the movie Mad Dog and Glory (1993) staring Robert De Niro, Billy Murray, and Uma Thurman.
As soon as you enter, you are warmly welcomed by one of the brothers who treats you like family. The diners are mostly locals and vary from families to couples to suited businessmen with Bluetooth headsets. A veteran diner suggested that I come for the lunch specials, but dinner is also very fairly priced. This no-fuss family restaurant serves up any kind of pasta with the delicious house-made meat sauce and meatballs. The manicotti is also very good, but stick to the basics, and you'll be dreaming later about the sauce, the dim red lights, the comfy red vinyl booths, and the lively chatter of real Chicago diners.
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