Hanging Out in Rockford: The last days of Little Italy

I came back to Rockford in the early ’80s. The last place I lived was New York. I had been working for the Coca-Cola Company in what was called the Eastern Area. It was along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. I was stationed in New Rochelle, N.Y. Our office was in the Conran Building. We operated in the upper floor above Coca-Cola New York.

I was seeing an Irish girl named Sally Hanley at the time. I had met her at Royal Crown when I worked there. Sally had a brother who was a minister in the Boston area, and she lived with him while we were out East. We used to commute to Connecticut to see one another. We would meet in Hartford, which was a really nice town and the home (at the time) of Hubelein. Hubelein owned, among other things, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Beaulieu Vineyards. Sally had previously worked for an ad agency that serviced Kentucky Fried Chicken. We used to eat at an Italian restaurant that was right next door to their headquarters, and they sold Georges de Latour Cabernet at grocery store prices.

One night, my friend Rich from Philadelphia Coke, Sally and I polished off several bottles of this wonderful cabernet, and Sally drove my brand-new company Oldsmobile over a median. Several days later, having forgotten the incident as I was taking the glass elevator down from my hotel to go to work, I noticed all four wheels of my brand-new car were dimpled. I had to buy new wheels at a junkyard.

The restaurants in New York were excellent, especially the Italian restaurants. When we moved back to Rockford to open the Old Rock River Café, it was quite a disappointment. We kept going out to different places trying this Italian restaurant and then that one, but every time we were unfulfilled. One night we went to a place that no longer exists, ordered, and the soup came. It was the typical French onion right out of a can, all salty and beefy tasting. Then, the salad came, and it was a big wedge of ice-cold iceberg lettuce with a glob of stone-cold dressing perched on top. I turned to Sally and stated that I could not do this again. I told the waitress that my beeper had gone off. The lady next to us said she had not heard any beeper. We paid our bill and escaped.

A lot of Rockford had responded to the tough economic times by cheapening their ingredients. Places that once were good had gone over the edge when it came to reducing quality. There seemed to be no good Italian to be had. When I was 11 or 12, my mother and I used to attend St. James Church. After church, we would go to Erwin’s—a restaurant owned by two Italian brothers. We would eat the Italian beef. This same restaurant was now the home of Little Italy. Sally and I were living at the corner of Market and First streets. One night, we walked the half a block to Little Italy. We had the tortellini. We were hooked.

The central figure of Little Italy was Iggy, who bartended and pretty much directed the running of the restaurant. Iggy used to work the bar in those days, and Iggy used to sing. Iggy knew everyone. The place was much as it is today, only the bar was in front. I went there one night with a young girl who worked for me. She was 18 and beautiful, in the way that only an 18-year-old girl can be. She objected to Iggy singing. He was furious. He made us leave. I didn’t take her there anymore. I liked the tortellini. A number of years later, I saw her again on Seventh Street. She looked old, tired and haggard. She was a working girl.

For more than 25 years, I have gone to Little Italy. For more than 25 years, I have eaten tortellini. Sunday night, the last night of the year, a beautiful woman friend of mine stopped by the Irish Rose. Deb was having her going-away party. The woman friend and I sat for a while in my apartment and talked about Little Italy. Then, we walked the block to the restaurant. We stood in the doorway of 505 next door while she smoked a cigarette. Standing there outside while my friend smoked her cigarette, the weather as mild as could be, it reminded me of San Francisco.

More next week.

From the Jan. 3-9, 2007, issue

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