John’s Pizza—Part 2

John’s Pizza—Part 2

By Mike Leifheit, Columnist

After the visit of my Irish cousin Elizabeth, after dropping her and her husband Pat off at the airport to fly back to Dublin, I take the night off. Instead of trying to go to the market on Tuesday, I go on Wednesday. When I arrive back at the Irish Rose downtown, I settle in to do a little work, but the telephone rings. It is my new lady friend. “Want me to pick you up?” she asks. There goes the idea of work.

I slam a shower and move downstairs to wait. It doesn’t take long for her to arrive in her new little blue sports convertible. Then we are on the road listening to, “I’m your reefer man, boom, boom, boom.” (The car has a great sound system.) We head down Sixth Street and turn left on Broadway. We are discussing going to Phainam (the Laotian restaurant on Broadway), but then I say (just as we get to Eleventh Street), “I’m not hungry yet, let’s just go for a ride.” “OK,” she says, swerving right on Eleventh. “This thing turns on a dime.”

We head down Eleventh, and then just as we reach John’s Pizza, she says, “I haven’t seen John Frisella lately. “Let’s stop and have a drink.” I say “OK” (as if it matters what I think), and we turn in. Walking into the bar, I remember that it was my friend, the now-departed Jack Pine (also known as Jack Anderson) who designed the bar at John’s Pizza. I remember when he was working on it, he told me that he really liked the food.

For some reason, perhaps because it is out of my regular path, I have only gone there a few times. Usually that has been late at night. I have met John casually at Little Italy. I don’t know if he would even recognize me, but my woman friend knows him, and so here we are.

Looking around at the bar, it has the unmistakable signature of Jack Pine. There are columns similar to the ones he did for me at Rosalita Malone’s. There is the unquestionable taste he always exhibited. It looks like a bar you would find in a nice restaurant in Italy. Some lovely alabaster lamps hang from the ceiling. I remember Jack telling me about them when John bought them for the bar. Jack was impressed that he was so totally into the project and would commit that kind of money.

Unfortunately, John is not here, but his son Joe is, and he is the attentive host. Our bartender Val suggests the Cabernet to me, and it is very dry. We have a couple of drinks, and naturally we get hungry. The bartender gives us each a menu, and we don’t quite know what to order. I am still doing the low carb thing, but I have lost more than 30 pounds, and I am not quitting now. Val suggests a shrimp cocktail, and that really seems like the ticket. It is. The shrimp cocktail is delightful. Big, beautiful shrimp, rock shrimp, I think, freshly cooked and rinsed, not cold.

Just at this moment, Mike Strom, my old cook at the Old Rock River Cafe, walks out of the kitchen. I haven’t seen him for a year or two. After he worked for me, he was a chef at the Mayflower and then later at Jungle Jim’s. That boy can make some soups. He used to make all the soups personally at Jungle Jim’s.

I hired Mike out of OIC (Opportunities Industrialization Center). He was a student of a woman named Sheila, who was a regular customer of mine at the Old Rock River Cafe. She thought Mike had real talent and recommended him to me. She was right. He has made a career in the restaurant business. When Mike became my full-time chef, they gave me an award as OIC employer of the year.

Paulee Buehler, Mike’s boss and the head chef in John’s kitchen, comes out to the bar also. He tells me that he has some Sicilian eggplant, and suggests I try some. We immediately agree. When it comes, it is beautiful. I love Sicilian eggplant. It has a bright purple skin that is not bitter, and it has no seeds. The fried eggplant rests on a bed of perfectly cooked angel hair pasta in a delicious marinara. We share bite for bite. Of course, this involves several more glasses of wine.

Mike tells me he still has a recipe book from the Old Rock River Cafe, and asks if I would like to have it. I say I would, and he says that he will drop it off to me, and we decide on Tuesday night. Unfortunately, I miss him, but he leaves the book. It still has a recipe in it for French silk pie we used to serve at the old place. I am going to give it to Marco and ask him to try making it for the Irish Rose.

After John’s, we take a nice night ride in the convertible. The night is balmy and beautiful. My company is lovely. I feel like one of the luckiest people in the world. John’s Restaurant and Pizzeria, 2914 11th St. Hours and Days of Operation: Lunch: Monday through Friday: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dinner: Monday through Thursday:” 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday: 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. Sunday: 4 p.m. to 11 p.m.

Owner of the Irish Rose (Rockford) and Irish Rose North (Rockton) restaurants, Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life.” These columns are also available on his website: and featured on the Chris Bowman Show, WNTA talk radio AM 1330.

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