Best of Rockford: Food from a barstool—the best in town

Ask, and ye shall receive.

Two weeks ago, I solicited articles for Best of Rockford and, lo and behold, here is one. I sent the writer of the article, Mary Mandzen, an inquiry concerning her bio, and she replied.

“Well, I manage Skyrise Apartments, a senior citizen apartment complex. Kind of sorry I said we were NEAR senior citizens in my article because we feel so young! Rich and I both went to West High School and were high school ‘sweethearts.’ Thus, we’ve been married forever, have three grown kids and five grandchildren. I can’t really talk about myself without including Rich—he’s retired from the Rockford Fire Department.

“We’re not typical ‘meat and potato’ eaters. Love going to great restaurants that serve great food. Definitely prefer quality to quantity when it comes to food. We’re very sociable and enjoy visiting with the owners, bartenders and other patrons.”

I thought the article so much in the spirit of what we are trying to accomplish (although a little long for our formula, take note other contributors) that I decided to run it right away. Enjoy!

Food from a barstool perspective

By Mary Mandzen

Having been empty-nested several years ago and both still working full-time, my husband Rich and I have developed a repertoire of restaurants we enjoy. However, since we both love the social atmosphere of the bar area, generally our meals are enjoyed at the bar. Bars are more casual and chatty. Thus, we critique from a barstool perspective.

Being non-smokers and preferring the bar area, we’re eager for the 2008 smoking ban. Rich has a bad back and finds barstools more comfortable. Think it has anything to do with that vodka gimlet in his hand? Our favorite restaurants follow.


Angelo’s has a wonderful, homey, Italian atmosphere. Owners Cindy and Dennis are always hospitable and add to the comfort level. The bar includes a traditional bar plus bistro tables. We generally go to Angelo’s on Thursday nights because of Ang, the bartender. She’s outstanding; everyone loves her. When Ang is manning the bar, no one waits long or goes unattended. Our typical night at Angelo’s might include one of Ang’s special pear martinis (she even adds a pear garnish) and her recommended dish of half chicken and half sausage cacciatore. It’s WONDERFUL and huge! Follow that with a complimentary homemade Italian cookie and buy an after-dinner drink of Limoncello—and you’re in heaven. Limoncello is Danny DiVito’s drink of choice. Remember his staggering appearance on The View after he’d enjoyed a few too many? Angelo’s also has excellent pizza and features a Saturday night prime rib special. With a neighborhood clientele, Angelo’s bar has developed into a “Cheers” atmosphere, “Where everybody knows your name.”


Everyone in Rockford knows Michael Verace! His restaurant features “classy but casual” food selections and decor. Michael actually has two locations, but we prefer the South Alpine/Harrison Avenue restaurant. Rich and I tend to get hung up on the balsamic chicken and the blackened steak sandwich. Both are absolutely perfect. When surveying the menu, it’s hard for us to get past them. But don’t forget about Michael’s ever-famous linguine, dating back to his father’s restaurant at Five Points. Michael’s also has a classic Chicago-style chopped salad with chicken that’s very good.


In Roscoe, DiGiovanni’s is a little off the beaten path, but well worth the drive. A really good appetizer selection is Italian Sausage with Peppers. We like to add onions and mushrooms. Start out with their delicious warm bread and olive oil, and you’ve got a meal. Our second favorite DiGiovanni’s menu item is Blackened Cajun Chicken Pasta. It’s served with two boneless blackened chicken breasts over a bed of pasta. It’s spicy, but every bite is wonderful (if you like spicy food)! DiGiovanni’s started out in downtown Rockford, evolved from father to son, and now includes a grandson. Quite an accomplishment in the restaurant business, I would assume.

Five Forks

We’ve also been enjoying the new Five Forks restaurant, which offers a unique menu and features tapas. My understanding of tapas is food presented in smaller portions so you can enjoy a few different items. From our barstool vantage point, we can chat with the cook and watch the food preparation. Rich recently enjoyed a beautifully presented dish of mussels. He said they tasted as good as they looked. I’ve enjoyed the hummus appetizer and the Five Forks Salad with chicken. It’s fun to have something out of the ordinary in Rockford. The owner, Randy, is extremely personable and friendly.


Still in keeping with our bar and barstool preference, we enjoy Octane—they offer such a varied menu. I crave the Chicken Nachos. They also have, in our opinion, the best espresso martini in town! It’s complete with the three “health, wealth and happiness” coffee beans. The atmosphere and clientele are very “college town.” I would call Octane eclectic. However, being near senior citizens (note, I said NEAR), we still feel very comfortable and welcome at Octane. We generally leave before 10 p.m. when the late-night crowd starts partying. Rich and I are both from Rockford, and love the downtown area.

Irish Rose Saloon

Last, but never least, is Irish Rose Saloon, which we love. It, too, has a downtown location and flair. Over the past few years, owner Mike Leifheit has developed an “Adult Happy Meal” menu that suits our barstool concept nicely. Friday nights, you can get an entire bottle of wine (red or white) served with bread and a plate of olive oil, pesto, sun-dried tomatoes and grated parmesan cheese for $10! Yes, $10! It’s terrific. We usually follow it up with another appetizer or, if we’re really hungry, an entrée. Sunday nights, the Happy Meal is a half-pound cheeseburger with homemade fries for $3.95! Happy Meals require the purchase of one cocktail—NOT a problem for us! If you prefer fine dining, you can skip the Happy Meal and opt for Irish Rose’s menu items. Everything is always market fresh and of excellent quality. Irish Rose has a chocolate mousse that truly is “to die for.” I wish I could get the recipe! Do I sound like a commercial? Add the friendly bartenders (and Mike) to the fine fare, and we’re just where we like to be…AND, of course, we’re on a barstool!

P.S.—According to my husband, a requisite for a really good restaurant is one that has anchovy olives for his vodka gimlets. Blue cheese olives are acceptable, but it takes an anchovy olive to get his top rating! You’ll find most of our favorites meet his olive expectations.

Where to go

Angelo’s Restaurant & Pizzeria, 2563 N. Mulford Road, Rockford, (815) 639-1200

Michael’s Bar & Grill, 4578 Harrison, Rockford, (815) 229-6096

DiGiovanni’s Ristorante, 4866 Bluestem Road, Roscoe, (815) 623-2320

Five Forks Market, 6565 Lexus Drive, Rockford, (815) 229-5500

Octane, 124 N. Main St., Rockford, (815) 965-4012

Irish Rose Saloon, 519 E. State St., Rockford, (815) 964-0480

Mike Leifheit’s “Best of Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. The column will appear the third week of every month in the “Real Rockford” section of Vibe Entertainment. Anyone with suggestions for this column should send them to Leifheit at or The Rock River Times at or (815) 964-9767.

from the Aug. 22-28, 2007, issue

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