Cafe Greco–a treat off the beaten path

Cafe Greco–a treat off the beaten path

By Mike Leifheit

By Mike Leifheit

Restaurant Critic

Owner of the Irish Rose (Rockford) and Norte (Rockton) restaurants, Mike Leifheit, reviews locally-owned restaurants who make it “from scratch.”

I had been thinking about branching the column out to include different people and businesses in the community. Basically, I thought I would invite people to accompany me to restaurants which I had selected for a column. The first experience of this nature was Guadalajara de Noche, last week’s story. I hadn’t even been to the Guadalajara with Marek, Dawn and Izzy, when I ran into county board member Mary Ann Aiello at Little Italy.

I have a love affair with bars. I guess that is pretty obvious, but probably not for the reasons you might think. At least not any more. When I want to get away from the Irish Rose, I usually escape on foot. For years where I escape to has been Little Italy, usually to have one drink or two, and then back to the Rose. When I work at Norte (soon to be Irish Rose Norte), it is Ye Old Pub or Fibs. Anyway, I was escaping on a Wednesday, and Mary Ann was sitting at the bar, waiting for a pizza.

I have always liked to sit at the bar and eat my dinner. Probably, it has something to do with being single and eating alone. Sitting at the bar is much less lonely than sitting at a table by yourself. At the bar, you can talk to the bartender if you have a good bartender, or you can converse with other patrons. Also, the bar is less formal, and if you are dressed casually (which I almost always am, as anyone who knows me could tell you), you don’t feel as out of place.

Anyway (for some of the same reasons, I am sure) Mary Ann is sitting at the bar waiting for her pizza. I am thinking about all of this, I buy her a beer, and she asks me if I want to share her pizza. I say OK, but I only will if she will let me buy her dinner at Cafe Greco so that I can do an article about them. She agrees immediately, and we make plans for the following week.

The following Tuesday night, my Primeco rings, and it is Mary Ann wondering if we are still on for the following evening. I assure her that we are, and we make plans to meet at the Irish Rose. When she arrives (late), I wait at the end of the bar talking to Mike Mauricci from Judge & Dolph Distributors, and I introduce them. We all have one quick drink, and then Mary Ann and I head out for Greco.

On our way to Greco, I tell her what a success my column is becoming, and I relate a story from the previous evening at Serrano’s. A man approached me and told me that he had been to several of the restaurants I had recommended. He quoted from several articles and actually had some understanding of what I was trying to accomplish.

We arrive at Cafe Greco, and I ask Mary Ann if she wants to sit at a table or at the bar, and she chooses the bar. Mark is bartending, and I ask him if his mother can wait on us. I went to school with his mother, Karen. He acts funny about it, so I give in, but I still ask Karen for her choices from the list of specials. She likes the Cod de Jonghe, but Mary Ann is leaning toward a steak. I usually eat pasta at Greco, but I want my friend to be comfortable, so I order a steak also.

Bernie, the owner, isn’t here tonight, and Mary is in the kitchen. The customers haven’t started to arrive yet, and she has time, so she comes out to chat with us. She wants to talk about my columns in The Rock River Times. She has read most of my articles and quotes from several. Mary Ann and I have a hard time keeping straight faces. When Mary goes back to the kitchen, Mary Ann says, “I see what you mean; people are really paying attention.” I am in my glory. I think they are catching on to us because Mark actually asks us if we want bread.

I want a lot of pasta and not that much steak, so in spite of the fact that you can get a side of pasta of your choice, I order a whole order. This isn’t a big extra extravagance because the prices are so reasonable at Greco. This is probably one of the reasons that a place like this, that is so out of the way, is busy all the time. Rockfordians love a bargain. I get the New York, and Mary Ann has the filet. We both get house salads; she has the Italian dressing, and I get my usual oil and vinegar.

I usually order pasta at Cafe Greco because this is one of the very restaurants in Rockford where you can get pasta cooked correctly. I hate overcooked pasta. In this case, I order the angel hair. This is a real test because 95 percent of Rockford restaurants will overcook angel hair pasta. I further test the system by ordering my sauce on the side. Angel hair is delicate and does not need to be drowned in sauce.

The steaks arrive and appear to be much larger than their advertised size on the menu. Mary Ann is tickled to death with her choice. I am totally knocked out by my angel hair, which is perfect, and I call to Mary in the kitchen to tell her so. We eat and talk. I get a big kick out of Mary Ann.

My favorite Mary Ann Aiello story occurred right after the September 11 disaster. A bunch of us, including Ross Petrotte and Kerry Knodle, were sitting at Little Italy discussing the incident. A crawler under the newscast stated that seven out of 10 persons were depressed by the event. Mary Ann piped in, “You have to really wonder about those other three. I mean, if you aren’t depressed by that, there is something really wrong with you.” Tonight we are talking about Rockford and what a nice town it is. She says, “We have to live here. I’m not saying everything is perfect, but you don’t always have to run everything down.” I agree.

I love going to Greco. A lot of it is the atmosphere. This is one of those out-of-the-way places that people love to find. You feel special just because you are “in the know.” Also, this is one of the most comfortable places in the city to sit at the bar and eat, and you know how I feel about that. I do miss the specials that Bernie used to run. One in particular that I would like to see again is the lamb shank cooked in sauce. It was positively breathtaking. Maybe not food for the heart, but definitely food for the soul. I also get emotional about the Sicilian chicken. Bernie, you have my phone number.

After we drive back to the Rose and say good night, I look to the top of the Faust. The wind is blowing from the north. I fear winter is coming. A couple of days later, I get a call from Mary Ann wondering when the article will appear. A week from Wednesday, I tell her.

Cafe Geco is located at 851 South St. Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Telephone: 963-3157

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