Red Sauce Reminiscence

Michael Nagrant / 08.22.06

Gennaro’s is the kind of restaurant no one writes about until it closes.

It’s not the oldest restaurant in the city. It doesn’t have liquor license number one. They don’t dip the Italian sausage in liquid nitrogen and the interior doesn’t look like a Frank Gehry dream of imploding stainless steel. It’s just an old red-sauce emporium in Little Italy whose stoop is darkened by the shadow of the ABLA power-plant tower and the crumbling remains of Jane Addams Homes.

Then again, where the face of Chicago dining is often concept-driven by the likes of such corporate titans as Lettuce Entertain You and Levy Restaurants, Gennaro’s is still an idiosyncratic family-owned shop. Mom and Pop may be gone, but siblings John Jr. and Mary Jo carry on their birthright. John Jr. tends bar, pouring tipples of a garnet Chianti, the same house formula his father served in 1959, into small glass tumblers. Mary Jo works the room like a Southern-fried waitress, peppering her conversation with a well-placed “honey” or offering a reassuring pat on the back of regulars.

Gennaro’s has made few concessions to history. You can’t just walk into the restaurant. John buzzes you in from behind the bar, the electric door strike hissing like an angry cobra. When I asked Mary Jo why they still do this, in a neighborhood where $300,000-plus condos are popping up like peas in Chicken Vesuvio? She says, “We always have. It’s the just way it was when we started.”

The bar is lined with deep black booths and old vinyl stools. The brown plywood wainscoted walls are adorned with taxidermied sport fish (caught by the family) and faded celebrity photos. It reminds me of my childhood friend Pete’s basement, which his father had transformed into an Italian man den. Sitting in the restaurant, my nostrils flare at the memory of the flatulent stench of cheap cigar smoke wafting up the stairs as Pete and I snuck down to spy on his dad’s weekly card game.

Patrons watch baseball on one of the last tube-style TV’s in any bar in Chicago. Plasma is what you donate, not what you watch at Gennaro’s. This is clearly a Sox den, because the only decorative nod to modernity in the whole joint is a wall mounted t-shirt with the Cub’s logo spelling out “cork,” a silent taunt to the tainted legacy of Sammy Sosa.

The bar is separated from the small dining room by white drapery and a black scrim that recalls the divider in a Catholic confessional. Walking through it, I’m tempted to make the sign of the cross, and whisper, “Bless me father….”, but my only sins tonight are those committed against the waistline.

Mary Joe and John serve food of love, cooking up the original recipes of their mother Eleanore under the light of a vintage Leinenkugel’s beer clock hanging in the postage-stamp kitchen. Fat sausages nestle in a hill of flame-roasted sweet green peppers and wafer-thin calamari is dusted with the deep-fried kiss of cornmeal and served with wedges of lemon. No tomato sauce is used to mask the crunchy texture and fresh sea flavor. The house-made pastas, egg noodles studded with delicate medallions of veal and torpedoes of airy gnocchi awash in a ruddy spicy red sauce are impeccable. I try to resist, but soon I am as full as the overstuffed manicotti bursting with pearls of ricotta that fly past my table.

Even the empty pair of child booster seats sitting on a metal coat rack, their worn leather backs and elegant throne-like wooden pedestals suggest a story. These aren’t modern extruded plastic boosters you’d get at Denny’s, and I’m willing to bet some of the older clientele who slurp noodles at nearby tables once perched in these seats as toddlers. Gennaro’s endurance is reassuring, a steadfast comfort that makes mortality seem like a dream. The bodies may be softer, the knees weaker and the backs stooped, but the old regulars brought their children here, and those folks bring their children. As long as the pasta stays fresh and the wood stays dark, I’m pretty sure Gennaro’s ain’t ever closing.

Gennaro’s, 1352 West Taylor, (312)243-1035.

This article first appeared in Newcity Chicago