Neapolitics in Downers Grove

Parkers’ Restaurant & Bar  (1000 31st St., Downers Grove; 630-960-5700), a new farm-friendly American revamp of Parkers’ Ocean Grill, also happens to serve Neapolitan pizza so serious that it received Naples’ treasured VPN (Vera Pizza Napoletana) certification. “We had a wood-burning oven since we opened as Parkers’, but we didn’t really utilize it,” says Patrick McLaughlin, the executive chef. McLaughlin worked with Italian-born Roberto Caporuscio, who also worked with Jonathan Goldsmith at his Spacca Napoli—the only other VPN-certified pizzeria in Illinois—before a VPN representative came from Naples to inspect Parkers’ operation. “I had to show him how I made it by hand,” says McLaughlin. “All the ingredients had to be imported from Italy except for the produce. And the challenge for us was to get up to 800° and still make bouillabaisse, sturgeon, and cedar-planked salmon in that same oven.”

Four Questions for Terry Alexander

The rumors were swirling for months about Wicker Park’s old Pontiac Cafe space (1531 N. Damen Ave.)—and the plans that Alexander, Paul Kahan and the rest of their cronies from The Publican, and Peter Garfield (Alexander’s Violet Hour partner) had for it—before last week’s revelation that it would be a still-unnamed taquería. (ETA: late October.) We finally got some details.

D: What was with all the rumors?
TA: My partner Peter and I were presented with the possibility of taking over the Pontiac a year and a half ago, but that was when we were working on The Publican. The farthest thing from my mind was to do another operation. Everyone thought we were being secretive, but there was no secret.

D: What ideas did you discuss for the space?
TA: The last thing we wanted to see was another sports bar come in to the neighborhood. Paul started talking about barbecue, and other ideas with a Mexican twist. Our first ideas centered around the music. We wanted old country from the fifties to the seventies, alt country, and the Bakersfield sound that originated in California in the fifties and sixties. We’re going have a turntable behind the bar, and the bartenders will play these albums.

D: So is it a restaurant or a bar?
TA: It’s a bar next to a little tiny taquería. Seven or eight items. We don’t want the neighborhood to think a restaurant is going in here. Think of Dairy Queen. The way those windows slide open. That’s the way the kitchen will be. So if you want a taco, you walk up to the kitchen window and order it.

D: And the booze?
TA: There will be about 50 obscure whiskeys. About 40 tequilas that a lot of people don’t know about. We’re not going to do the in-depth cocktails that we do at the Violet Hour, but they are going to be amazing. The beers are predominantly from Texas and California, Mexico, and some from Chicago, of course. And we will be one of the least expensive bars—trying to do a $1 draught and a $3 glass of whiskey.


“Everyone is kneaded out of the same dough but not baked in the same oven.” –Yiddish Proverb

Pollack Drops In

The good news: 33 Club (1419 N. Wells St.; 312-664-1419), with its Gone with the Wind staircase, gleaming woodwork, and modish lighting, has all the glamour, energy, and vibe that Jerry Kleiner devotees have come to expect (Marché, Red Light, Carnivale, Opera, Gioco, Il Poggiolo). The bad news: The crab-and-shrimp cocktail is an indiscernible scoop of shredded seafood, and the dried-out broiled whitefish deserved a better fate. Right down the middle: The grilled skirt steak rocked but the side of polenta was tepid and rubbery. Major annoyance: The kitchen is on the main floor, and waiters and bussers race food and dirty dishes up and down the staircase all evening. Restrooms are on the main floor, so diners seated upstairs in need of a bathroom break, beware. The question: How about installing a dumb waiter? Seems a lot smarter than what’s going on.

Keep An Eye on This One

“We are trying to join the rest of Europe and be united,” says Gosia Pieniazek, the Polish-born chef-partner of LOKaL (1904 W. North Ave.), a contemporary European restaurant/lounge coming in late September or early October. “We’re using staple foods [from] across Europe and giving them a new face.” For example: Potato pierogi with tequila date sauce, anise purée soup with multigrain crouton, potato cream soup with crispy leek ring, basil gelato, chocolate cake with chipotle chocolate filling. Per Pieniazek: “We will have flavors going across Europe from east, west, north, and south—and then some.”

Getting Baked

Baked. (2246 W. North Ave.; 773-752-6770), an upcoming 25-seat bakery café with free WiFi and a garden patio, sounds like one to watch. Jennifer Kane, the owner, is a pastry veteran (most recently at the Peninsula New York) who garnered a huge following at the Division Street Farmers’ Market. “I love to do specialty cakes,” says Kane. “One of my favorites is a malt cake with salted caramel filling and a caramelized pretzel crunch in it and around it for the garnish.” Eight-inch cakes will range from $28 to $32, and Kane promises to cover a lot of  ground—scones, cinnamon rolls, cookies, cupcakes, brownies, macaroons, and fruit tarts—when she opens on September 23rd.

Things to Do

  1. Show up at Small Bar (2049 W. Division; 773-772-2727) at 3 p.m. on September 5th and eat pulled pork, corn on the cob, and mac salad for free. Say happy anniversary (it’s five years for this spot) and thank you (c’mon, it’s free). And remember to leave some for the guy behind you: It’s first come, first served.
  2. Celebrate September Sampler Day. Never heard of it? Panera Bread invented it to introduce their new fall menu (power breakfast sandwich, BBQ chicken salad, new brownies and blondies) with free samples all day September 10th. There are at least 40 Paneras in and around Chicago, so we suspect there’s one near you.
  3. Leave room for dessert September 4th when you can sample 30 different ice creams at 15 different tasting stations. Also plenty of beer and wine will be on hand, all for $25 at the Luxury Ice Cream Festival at Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum (2430 N. Cannon Dr.; 773-755-5100) at 7 p.m. On second thought, we suggest skipping dinner altogether.

Places To Try

A slew of new restaurants have just opened or are about to hit the pavement. Here’s the list:

  • Pelago Ristorante
    Raffaello Hotel, 201 E. Delaware Pl.; 312-280-0700
    Upscale Italian in Streeterville. Now open for breakfast and lunch. Dinner won’t be far behind.
  • Park Avenue
    3415 N. Clark St.; 773-975-6677
    Purgatory Pizza quietly closed on August 22 and reopened in a flash as Park Ave. Stop the presses: More burgers and draft beers in Wrigleyville! Open now but the grand opening—cheap drinks, half-price food—is September 4th.
  • Paciugo
    3241 N. Broadway; 773-248-8433
    Open today—another gelato café. This one is in Boys Town and promises 32 flavors (out of 220) on any given day.
  • XOCO
    449 N. Clark St.; 312-334-3688
    Rick Bayless’s River North tortería opens at last. Expect long lines.
    September 8th (7 a.m.)
  • Gemini Bistro
    2075 N. Lincoln Ave.; 773-525-2522
    Jason Paskewitz (Wave, SushiSamba Rio, JP Kitchen) resurfaces in Lincoln Park. This time he’s into American bistro food. September 9th
  • (K)new
    2556 W. Fullerton Ave.; 773-772-7721
    Fans of Think Cafe—recently closed—rejoice. Your favorite chef, Omar Rodriguez, moved his pots and pans a few blocks west and will be back in business before you have a chance to miss him. September 12th
  • The Cellar
    820 Clark St., Evanston; 847-425-5112
    The Stained Glass Bistro gang branch out with small plates, beers, and more global wines. September 16th
  • Mercadito
    108 W. Kinzie St.; 312-329-9555
    New York’s favorite taco show comes to Chicago. Not only that; it’s happening in Bayless’s neighborhood. September 17th