Chicago has several pockets of Italian culture: the original Little Italy on Taylor Street, plus the area of West 24th Street and Oakley Avenue as well as a portion of North Harlem Avenue.
NBC 5’s Food Guy Steve Dolinsky says there was also a vibrant corridor along Grand Avenue in West Town at one point. More recently, that area has been making a slow comeback.
For decades, the area around Grand Avenue, just a mile or so west of downtown, had Italian groceries, bakeries and restaurants. There are still a few holdouts, as well as some new blood, pumping energy into an area that had seemingly lost a lot of its pioneers.
At Tempesta Market, a fantastic Italian deli owned by the family behind the best ‘nduja in town, the deli case is the focal point, according to Dolinsky. The spicy, spreadable Calabrian sausage joins other meats on a menu full of subs and sandwiches.
Down the block, legendary D’Amato’s sells bread from its coal-fired oven, while Bari also has sandwiches and grocery items. Across the street is the brand new Gemma foods – a pandemic project that became a full-time job.
“I started cooking for friends, offered, said ‘hey, I’m gonna make some pasta, are you guys interested? It’ll be kind of a restaurant level experience in your house, ‘and all of a sudden it became a thing, ”said Tony Quartaro, the owner of Gemma Foods.
Pasta here is treated with reverence.
Quartaro lives elbow-deep in flour and eggs, making some with a fancy extruder, others completely by hand. The detail on the ravioli is stunning; filled with ricotta, sealed and cut, few restaurants can compete with this skill level.
“We have three classics on our menu: our vodka baskets, and then we also do a paccheri with Sunday gravy, a bucatini cacio e pepe,” he said.
You can pick up the pasta, get it delivered or shipped, and then buy separate sauces, to assemble at home.
“You’re adding some of your pasta water to dilute the sauce a little bit then bring it all together in a pan,” said Quartaro.
If you’d rather have someone else cook your pasta, there’s Elina’s, a cozy new restaurant on Grand Avenue just west of Racine Avenue. The rigatoni alla vodka is a house favorite, as is the chicken parmesan, pounded thin. Most of the pastas are made in-house. The small dining room fills up fast, so no shame in dining at the bar.
A few blocks off Grand, the new Paulo Gelato is partially hidden behind a CTA entrance, but so worth the effort. Everything is handmade, including the pistachio paste.
“The pistachio is something which I decided to start doing because I wanted to do really good, and it takes a lot of time,” said Pawel Petrykoski, the owner.
“You have to roast pistachio first, then there is a machine grinder which is doing small pieces of pistachio.”
Also, the Trio – containing dulce de leche, chocolate and hazelnut, or a beguiling chocolate mint. The shop is the culmination of a dream started in Poland, but now fully realized here.
“This was the part I like to do which is creating something new,” he said.
Here are establishments you can visit in the neighborhood:
1372 W. Grand Ave.
1117 W. Grand Ave.
1058 W. Chicago Ave.
1124 W. Grand Ave.
1120 W. Grand Ave.
1202 W. Grand Ave.
1201 W. Grand Ave.
1321 W. Grand Ave.
1332 W. Grand Ave.