The Polish-Italian Alliance: Flo & Santos makes its case for European harmony

Michael Nagrant / 05.17.10

Save a long tradition of ethnic jokes at their expense, the Italians and the Poles don’t have much in common. With his good work promoting interreligious harmony, validating Darwin and bringing down Communism (although Ronald Reagan might claim that all for himself) Pope John Paul II was probably the brightest spot in their shared history.

Then again, gays, Dr. Jack Kevorkian and women didn’t quite fare as well under JPII. And, with the recent fallout over Pope Benedict’s handling of child-molesting priests, really a legacy of the John Paul II administration since he appointed Joseph Ratzinger, aka Pope Benedict, to handle such cases, Italian-Polish collaboration has generally been a mixed bag. Trying to change all that: Flo & Santos, a new South Loop one-stop shop for pizza and pierogi.

The name of the place sounds like an episode from the defunct sitcom “Alice” whereby Flo goes on a bad date with a dishwasher from Mel’s Diner and at the end of the night tells him to “Kiss My Grits!” Unfortunately the origins of the name are much less exciting and are a nod to owner Bill Bolton’s (no relation to that no-talent ass-clown Michael) best-childhood-friend’s parents. One imagines dinner in that household (Maxwell Street Polishes and Italian combo beef!) would pretty much rule. The execution of that memory in the South Loop however does not.

As a pub-type hangout, the antidote to the sterile hangar that is Wabash Tap across the street, it’s a good spot to watch a game and do some drinking if you’re a South Loop denizen. The fact that Flo & Santos serves up bottles of New Orleans fave Abita Amber is also nice. Then again, while it’s a decent beer, like most regional pours (Shiner Bock, Brooklyn Brewery, etc) there’s more value in the nostalgia of being able to drink a hometown favorite than in the suds themselves. After half a bottle, I wonder why I didn’t choose some Goose Island or some Half-Acre Daisy Cutter?

Stick to sticky bbq-sauce-slathered bar fare like “Flying Pork Wings” or the perfectly pink cooked-to-order thick ten-ounce pretzel-roll-encased Black Angus burger and you’ll be pretty happy. Thing is, this place ain’t named Buffalo or NOLA Joe’s. I’m here for the ethnic goodies.

As in the first round of the 1974 soccer World Cup, the Polish beat the Italians at Flo & Santos. That’s not to say the Polish fare here is any great shakes. It is, as my Polish grandmother would have lamented, w porzadku. Or as a Polish rapper translated into English would say, “Aight.” The pierogi dough is light enough, but the mystery “meat” inside has no seasoning and has the consistency of lint. The cheese version lacks salt. The mushroom and sauerkraut pierogi is nice, but only because of the sweet caramelized cabbage and not because of the parsimony with the funghi.

The potato pancake is crispy, albeit undersalted. But without it, I never would have discovered the Mott’s-bludgeoning chunky fresh cinnamon-spiced applesauce served on the side. I’d tell you if the applesauce was house-made, but my server told me she didn’t know. Of course, she wasn’t interested in asking the chef about that either.

One thing that is house-made, according to the waitress who may or may not really know, is the big fat smoky grill-marked kielbasa. The fine grind of pork studded with fat, and more garlic than a vampire slayer’s toolkit, is pretty much a perfect facsimile of my grandfather Alex’s homemade links. Though the crispy crackling skin on the sausage at Flo & Santos is actually superior. They’re so good, there likely won’t be any leftovers, but if there are, and you want to piss off your roommates, hide a few links under their bed and it’ll smell the joint up for days.

As for the Italian side, the pizza at Flo & Santos is made with a flavorless low-rise Chicago thin-crust sauced with a light insipid tomato sauce. The kitchen splashes fennel seed on top of the cheese, but as a result all you can really taste is the licorice and mint notes from the herb.

Despite the mediocrity of the pizza, one thing I really liked about Flo & Santos was that the chef was really working the pass, checking plates and sending them back if they needed work. He also vigorously flagged down servers to make sure nothing hung out under the hot lamp very long, a level of vigilance there that suggests Flo & Santos still has a chance to be more than just a place to grab only a brew and a ballgame.

Flo & Santos, 1310 South Wabash, (312)566-9817