SOME PEOPLE USE THE DOG DAYS OF WINTER as an excuse for a staycation on the Magnificent Mile, enjoying all the bustle of the big city’s center. I sympathize, but my instinct for a no-flying, low-driving getaway is to head in the other direction—any other direction. I love exploring old school neighborhoods for the modest delights of neighborhood life—the restaurants and shops that locals patronize. Places that have the imprint of neighborhood life on them, customers chatting up staff they’ve known for 20 years, photos of high school sports teams on the wall. Where hipness not only doesn’t exist, it’s never even gotten off the expressway by mistake and gotten lost. This is my savor-the-dowdy idea of fun, so if you’re expecting anything else today, you should probably go read The 13 Hottest Fernet Bars With Tiki Arcades instead.
One area I like to poke around is the far northwest side. At the edge of the city, with little of the Mexican and Asian presence we take for granted throughout the city, neighborhoods like Edison Park, Norwood Park and Jefferson Park are a step back in time to Daley I-era Chicago, white working class and middle class, often city workers residing just within the city’s borders. In Edison Park and Norwood Park, though the largest group in numbers is Irish, the food is overwhelmingly Italian-American, recalling the days when every neighborhood had an Italian grocer on the corner. In Jefferson Park, a little closer in, it’s mostly Polish, a real slice of Europe in America.
There are restaurants here, but I’ve focused on shops because they have more of the feel of neighborhood life. I’m not saying anything you find will cry out to be announced to the world—or to be put in a guidebook. This is modest, homey food at very modest prices. But you can have a pleasant afternoon eating comfort food, soaking in the long-established rhythms of a neighborhood—and maybe traveling back in time a little in the places I list here.
Named for Thomas Edison with the blessing of the great man himself, Edison Park occupies a tall, narrow rectangle west of Harlem from Sibley (aka Howard) to Devon. But the restaurant strip is at the south end on Northwest Highway, paralleling the Metra tracks. You’ll spot it easily enough, a two or three block row busy with Italian restaurants and outposts of both Giordano’s and Armand’s Pizza. I like that it’s full of popular restaurants no one talks about in the city food conversation (Zia’s Trattoria!), but I’ve never been tempted to head here at night for Italian-American classics. Instead I go to two shops next to each other in the 6700 block for more humble noshing.
Tony’s Italian Deli and Subs (6708 N. Northwest Highway) is an Italian grocery with a deli counter in the back, the kind of place where you can get house-branded olives and imported pasta and a big tub of frozen manicotti for dinner and, behind the counter, CDs with names like “Mob Hits Vol. 3.” The Turano rolls they use for subs aren’t up the crustiness of D’Amato’s, but the meats are good quality and (this is rare outside of Chicago) the subs aren’t overdressed with mayo or Italian dressing. They also do a very creditable Italian beef (as seen here), and somewhat rare for Italian delis, there’s a seating area so you can get it dipped and eat it before it falls apart.
Beyond subs, there are various salads by the pound, plus ready-made dinner items from lasagna and eggplant parmagiana to housemade arancini. I’ve tried any number of them, they were all exactly what you’d expect, and very reasonably priced.
Next door, Conca d’Oro (6710 N. Northwest Highway) is a bakery that’s darker and more claustrophobic than the brightly-lit Tony’s, not just because it’s smaller but because it’s also decorated in every square inch with reflections of the mixed Italian and Greek heritage of the owner. The window is usually filled with handmade sheet pizzas, but come on Saturday and you’ll see a full spread of Italian specialties which all taste like Grandma made them. The more professional side comes out in the Italian cookies, which include excellent lemon knots. I was going to comment on the chocolate versions, but they seem to have disappeared since I got home….
Now, you might think that’s all Edison Park has to offer, but in fact if you turn the corner and go to the other side of the same building, you’ll find an entire parallel strip of restaurants facing the train tracks, including one in the (uncharacteristically gaudy for the northwest side) Edison Park State Savings Bank.
Again, I haven’t tried any of the restaurants, though I recommend the Yelp reviews of the Edison Park Inn and bowling alley as a highly entertaining read (“Do you like drinking out of plastic cups? Do your feet love the tactile sensation of walking on a sticky floor? Do your lady friends have big hair that they like to thrash about to any Bon Jovi song? Then welcome to the promised land my friend”). But there’s a pleasant little coffeehouse and cake bakery on this side called Le Flour (6701 N. Olmsted), and an Italian ice place called Tony and Millie’s (6709 N. Olmsted).
Norwood Park is straight south of Edison Park, and includes the north end of the Harlem Italian strip, but the fact is it seems to be a semi-dead food zone next to its neighbors (which also include the suburb Harwood Heights, home to a spectacularly multicultural strip mall). In my experience the pizzas on Higgins are nothing to be excited about, but there is one shop, similar to Tony’s, which is worth checking out for much the same reasons. (In other words, maybe not on the same day.)
Two deli businesses have the name Nottoli (the other is on west Belmont), and I expect there’s a family story there (if they are related, neither seems to acknowledge the existence of the other). Anyway, Nottoli Italian Foods (5025 N. Harlem) is an unfancy but very well stocked Italian shop that makes exceptionally good Italian meat items like meatballs and Italian sausage. You can also get sandwiches, and the meatball sub is (unsurprisingly) very good, though I can’t quite recommend the Italian beef. It might seem like a good thing that they slice the meat to order and place it right in the gravy, but at places that do it that way, it never spends enough time in the gravy to really get tender and absorb the flavor. I’d buy the beef and then make it at home; after all, you get…
Where Edison Park and Norwood Park play their neighborhood cards close to the vest, Jefferson Park sprawls with commercial strips along Milwaukee and Lawrence, and even a museum of note (the excellent, free Ed Paschke Art Center at 5415 W. Higgins). Most of the commercial presence is fairly utilitarian, though, so it takes some digging to find the gems that really represent this Polish-Italian neighborhood—like Ideal Pastry (4765 N. Milwaukee), a cheerful Polish bakery which does nice coffee cakes, babka, pazcki and kolachky; peek in the second half of the storefront, which used to be more grocery but now gives the baker more room.
I can’t remember if anybody, myself included, has ever written about Sandy’s Bakery and Deli (5857 W Lawrence—which is, shhh, technically on the Portage Park side of Lawrence, but much closer to other commercial in Jefferson Park than to Portage Park’s strip near Irving Park). But it deserves discovery for packing a lot of Serbian food into a small space. They serve cevapcici sandwiches for lunch, have an assortment of grocery goods and Serbian liquors, a full range of baked goods including excellent cheese and meat bureks, some hot dishes to order to go—and most dramatically of all, on weekends they roast whole pigs and sell the crispy, delicious meat in various forms for your weekend feast, including the Game of Thrones-ish display of heads seen above.
Irish bars are easy to find in this area, but Irish food is much rarer—so for corned beef or bangers and mash try Harrington’s (5685 N. Milwaukee), a small shop which represents a much larger wholesale business. If you live in the northwest suburbs, on St. Patrick’s Day you go to the Jewels and get a Harrington’s corned beef, no substitution allowed. There’s a sign behind the register telling how many days until St. Pat’s.
For the ultimate meat experience, or the ultimate Polish experience for that matter, in Jefferson Park, it would be tough to argue with Andy’s Deli & Mikolajczyk Sausage Shop (5442 N. Milwaukee). It’s about the most authentic European market in the Chicago area, by which I mean, not that it feels like the most Old World-y, but it has the fluorescent-lit sci-fi feel of European markets today. Be sure to get your number first thing, because you’ll be waiting a while in any case, but your reward is an impressive array of housemade Polish sausages, hams and cheeses, hot foods and baked goods, along with things like barrels full of house cured pickles, all with barely a word of English spoken. (The one disappointment, to me, is the bread section—there are better Eastern European bakeries in Chicago than are represented here.)
It may seem like you’re a long ways away from the organic section at Whole Foods, but maybe not—Andy’s tends to make things the old fashioned way, buying European-style butter, eggs and other goods from Amish farmers in Indiana, and meat from fairly natural midwestern meat producers for its in-house sausages. If you want to do natural-artisanal on the cheap in Chicago, this is a good place to start.
And conclude your northwest side tour by going exactly one door northwest from Andy’s, as you did going from Tony’s to Conca d’Oro, and you’ll find Sweet World Pastries (5450 N. Milwaukee), another Polish bakery, though less of the coffee cakes and babka, and more French and Viennese-style pastries (like the Napoleon shown above). It’s nice stuff, again priced incredibly reasonably, and a happy ending to a tour of the Chicago that exists beyond the hot lists and the latest openings.
Michael Gebert gets one gravy with each article as editor of Fooditor.
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