It couldn't have been more perfect if owner Mario Stefanini had set it up to happen. At the table next to our party sat a couple of women of a certain age, enjoying the well-practiced Italian-American food and making small talk about their plans for the week. "My girlfriend and I are going out tomorrow night," one of them says. "She said she wanted to go to Mario's. And I said, well, I'm going here tonight with you. But I can always go to Mario's again and have something else." To which the other woman nodded assent of course you can go to Mario's twice in one week. Why wouldn't you?
Mario Stefanini with calamari and family cash register.
IN A WORLD WHERE NOVELTY in dining is a constant chase, where places can explode on the scene and just as quickly contract into a black hole from which no publicity can escape, we run the risk of losing the neighborhood joint. Of forgetting the virtues they represent you being known to the staff, them belonging to your neighborhood. The neighborhood joint offers food that doesn't change your life, but instead marks its passages the kid who sat in a high chair suddenly orders for himself, then he orders steak, and one day he orders a cocktail. Neighborhood places don't dazzle with novelty, but with any luck they do a few classics superlatively well. And they last, because they take care of you.
Mario Stefanini has lasted, in his place at the corner of Dearborn and Goethe.
Mario is a trim, white-haired man from whom you might expect, at first glance, an Italian accent to emerge. Instead it's a blunt, here's-how-it-is-pal southwest suburban Chicago voice. In some ways that's better when that guy is taking care of you, you know it means more than if some European charmer was doling out the sweet-talk. Stefanini is the epitome of the hands-on restaurateur, constantly sweeping his room like a radar screen, greeting long-time customers ("I don't call them old customers, I call them long-time"), selling what he knows to be the standouts on his menu ("the calamari, ohhh, we baby it"), making sure everybody's happy with the food in front of them.
It's what he was born to do. He grew up in Brookfield, where his family had a restaurant called Ralph's Restaurant and Lounge for fifty years. He points out a cash register on one wall that came from Ralph's and, as he demonstrates, can't ring up any amount higher than three dollars. (How could you spend more than that?) Eighteen years ago, he decided to open in the Gold Coast where he lived because, he says, "I had watched a bunch of fancy places open and close after a year or two in this space, and I knew what this neighborhood needed was a neighborhood place. A place where you could go once a week, not once a year." Tacitly acknowledging the wealthy Gold Coast's reputation, he hastens to add, "This isn't a nose in the air neighborhood. These are caring, loving, generous people."
He named the restaurant Rocco's, for his one-year-old son. (Who's now in college.) Then, after a couple of years, he got tired of everyone calling him Rocco, so he bowed to the inevitable as the face of his restaurant and put his own name on it. But because the city is full of Mario's, most famously an Italian ice place on Taylor street, he made it "Mario's Gold Coast Ristorante."
And it took off. Located in a modern high-rise which will never be on a Chicago architecture tour, it doesn't have the obvious quaintness of an old old neighborhood spot, but you pick up on a welcoming vibe soon enough. Even the bar is easygoing, without the air of desperation of downtown after-work watering holes. If you doubt it's a family-run spot, next to the family cash register and behind the one family-sized table, there's a professional portrait of a salt-and-pepper-haired Mario and his own wife and two sons.
"We baby it," Stefanini says of the calamari.
THERE WAS A TIME when Mario's prided itself on being at the forefront of modern Italian dining. "We had a stone pizza oven 18 years ago, now that's the new thing. We had a vegetarian section years ago. I went trans-fat free 12 years ago, changed all the fryer oil. We went smoke free two years before the ban. Business dipped for a week, and I thought oh no, I blew it, and then it came back."
But as Rocco approached college age, Stefanini realized his restaurant too was ready for a life change. "Not to be blunt, but customers were dying, they were retiring [out of Chicago]," he says. He also felt that the Gold Coast monicker made younger people think it was too expensive for them, when, as he points out, most of his prices are under $20. "The menu had grown too big. We'd have a special, and it would wind up on the menu, and the menu was too long. The place had filled up with tchotchkes. It needed a change."
He started working on it last November, and did the most drastic work, like redoing the bathrooms, during the slow winter months. "Everyone said brighten it up. I went the other way new silverware, candlelight on the tables." He pared the tchotchkes down to ones that had real meaning, like the cash register or an old wine press, and pared the menu down to old favorites which he knew his kitchen did really well eggplant parmigiana, veal piccata, the tiramisu they make in house. He also added half portions, bucking the tendency of Chicago Italian restaurants to serve enough food for a week. And he changed the name again, to the more approachable Mario's Table. He says the long-time customers accepted the changes "I'm getting great feedback. They say we did the changes just right."
Mario knows the Italian scene in Chicago has changed, and he's realistic that new places are taking it in new directions and his restaurant isn't Spiaggia or Balena or Nellcôte. But he's sincere about wanting it to be what a neighborhood place should be, with some classics like calamari or eggplant parmigiana that would deserve a ranking on anybody's five-best-places-to-get list. "I'm not gonna say I have the best meatballs. Everybody's got the best meatballs. But they're real. I'm pretty real, the place is pretty real."
And as his kids get closer to the age of careers of their own, does he see them following in his footsteps as he followed in his parents' and grandparents'? Now that Chicago bluntness comes out again. "Hey, I tell my kids there's one living in this business. There isn't three."
Mario with kitchen manager David Dominguez.