In the Know: Mark Sparacino

Michael Nagrant / 08.05.08

Most Italian joints are run on the mythology of the grandmother who slaved over the stove to make a red sauce.  They usually get by on mediocre overcooked pasta and dessicated chicken Vesuvio, because surely it would be heartless to ding your grandma.  Few are the places that actually hit the Italian haute cuisine mark.  But at River North’s Prosecco, chef Mark Sparacino combines gourmet talent with the heart and soul of a first-class nonna to create a rare culinary gem.

Q. What’s the best Chicago-related advice you’ve ever heard?

A. I’d have to say it came from my mother, Darlene, and my late father, Steve Sparacino, who moved my sisters and I to Chicago when I was 14.  They always said to be nice, to be yourself and to work hard at everything you do.  If I’ve had any success in my career, it’s because of those simple words.

Q. What’s your favorite hidden gem in Chicago?

A. I love Sai Cafe [2010 N. Sheffield] for sushi, Avec [615 W. Randolph] for casual dining with friends and La Pasadita — northwest store [1140 N. Ashland] — for late-night or early morning dining.

Q. If I were to come to your neighborhood, where would you insist I visit?

A. Near Prosecco, Graham Elliot’s new eponymous eatery [217 W. Huron].  Near my loft in the West Loop, Sepia [123 N. Jefferson] for American cuisine and Macello [1235 W. Lake] for all things Italian, especially the pizza.

Q. You worked at Topo Gigio [1516 N. Wells], which is legendary for its dining characters.  Any interesting stories from those days?

A. If I told you the real stories, I’d have to go into witness protection.  Seriously, my favorite story is how it took me a week of trying to get my foot in the door before they would hire me since I wasn’t from Italy.  I wound up meeting some of my best friends there, including Lillo Teodosi, the owner.

Q. What’s with not having a sign out front (at Prosecco)?

A. It’s a mistake!  Our original sign company failed us and a new one is being fabricated.  People think we’re trying to be sly, since my business partner Kathryn’s place Narcisse was without a sign for years, but ours is being installed in a week or two!

Q. You’ve got a restaurant in Galewood.  Are there things you can do downtown that you can’t on the Far West Side?  How does operating the two restaurants compare?

A. My sister Stefania and I are business partners in Sparacino in Galewood [6966 W. North] and Prosecco in River North.  The biggest difference is the national and international audience that we have downtown that doesn’t make it out to Galewood.  The Prosecco menu features new takes on many of my classic dishes from Sparacino.  We’re thrilled with how many of our friends from Galewood have visited us in River North.

Q. What should we know about Prosecco that we probably don’t?

A. Besides the fact that it’s a grape, a wine and a region?  That it’s great for cooking as well as drinking!  We have a Prosecco vanilla sauce over scallops that’s very popular.  I just got back from two weeks in Tuscany and have many new recipes for incorporating Prosecco into dishes that we’ll be rolling out later this season.

Prosecco; 710 N. Wells St., Chicago (312) 951-9500

This article first appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times in a different form.