Little Italy–savoring sauce and old memories

Little Italy–savoring sauce and old memories

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.”

Tuesdays, I go to the market. I leave around 6 in the morning, so to quote my friend, Parry Donze, Monday is a school night. I try to eat vegetarian most of the early part of the week, sort of to make up for the weekend’s excesses. I usually do books and planning on Monday, and I tend to get really involved and lose track of time. Before you know it, it’s getting late, and if I want something to eat in Rockford, I’d better get a move on.

I am sitting on my end stool at the Irish Rose, trying to make up my mind. Where, oh where, should I go? I decide to take a walk down to Little Italy. I can get my column done and get a great bowl of pasta. Sort of take care of my obligations all at one time. Cooked tomato sauce has been proven highly beneficial to health.

I enter, and Russ Petrotte and Kerry Knodle are occupying two stools at the bar. I pass them up and head for the kitchen door. Troy is working tonight (in the old days, it would have been Connie, Carl’s daughter), and I tell him what I want. I’ve been coming here so many years that I rarely look at the menu. For the most part, I have it memorized, although there are some nice recent additions. I order the mafaldine with marinara, a spinach appetizer, the tomato appetizer with fresh oregano and olive oil (Pomodora E. Cipolla), and a dinner salad with oil and vinegar.

I go back to the bar and slide in next to Russ and Kerry, and we spend a while solving the world’s problems. We all can do that pretty well after a couple of drinks at Little Italy. Troy brings me my salad and the oil and vinegar bottles, but he has brought balsamic vinegar, and I send him back for the red wine vinegar. For about 20 years when you asked for oil and vinegar at Little Italy, you got red wine vinegar. Then they had one of those culinary school graduates cooking for a while, and now they bring you balsamic vinegar. I think balsamic vinegar is a wonderful thing on the right stuff, but not on bitter greens. Too bad they don’t teach taste in those culinary schools. But as with almost anything at this wonderful little restaurant, they will accommodate you, and I get a souffle cup of red wine vinegar.

The red wine vinegar is wonderful with romaine, mesclun mix and iceberg lettuce, as well as some nice crunchy croutons. Really, this is a better salad than you get in any other Italian restaurant in town, or perhaps we should leave out the Italian part and say this is one of the nicest salads in the city. My spinach appetizer comes, and it is accompanied by a nice bruschetta. Now there is a subject. I think the Sicilians must say it “bruchetta,” ‘cause that’s the way most Rockfordians say it, and a lot of Rockford Italians are from Sicily. The correct Italian pronunciation is “brusketa.” The first time I thought about having bruschetta at my restaurant, I approached Jeff, the (then) chef at Avanzare. We were at Tom Cornille’s Produce in Chicago, and I asked him for a recipe. He replied that I should first learn to pronounce it. (Avanzare has now been replaced by another Richard Mellman restaurant called Tru, and Jeff has moved on to a new restaurant.)

Then I get my tomato appetizer, and it is not the one I ordered, but instead the one that also has anchovies. But that’s all right because I really like anchovies, and I am glad they made the mistake. My pasta arrives, and it looks beautiful. The noodles are all one long strand, a good indication that they have been cooked properly (al dente), and they have. They are perfect, not an easy task in a busy restaurant.

Cooking is like music. Canned or processed food will always be adequately consistent. Like recorded music, it will rarely be inedible. (Or would that be inaudible?) But it will never be great in the manner that a live concert will be great. You can cook your noodles ahead, coat them with olive oil and flash them to order. This results in a remarkably consistent product that is just a notch or so below perfectly prepared freshly cooked pasta. I freely admit to pre-cooking the pasta in my own restaurant. Cooking it to order is chancy and almost impossible in the middle of a busy rush, and we do get busy.

But tonight this is Little Italy. Eric Ohlson is cooking, and tonight the pasta is perfect. When it is like this, this is simply the finest dish of pasta in the city of Rockford, period. I don’t say this lightly, and I have said it openly at the bar over a plate of this with the marinara sauce that is made by Maria, Iggy’s wife. The first time Frank Calvanese convinced me to try the mafaldine, he served it to me with a bolognese (meat) sauce, and it was very good, but I think it is equally good with the marinara.

I miss the old days when Iggy would be behind the bar, and Carlo would sit down at the end. Iggy would sing with opera he would play on the stereo. Once in a great while, Carl would get out the concertina and join in. He had a beautiful voice. Iggy used to make this drink he called an Iggy special: a shot or more of sambucca with just a touch of cognac, and three coffee beans at the bottom. And many a night I walked slowly and carefully back to the Irish Rose (after two or three). There also was a guy who used to buy everyone Galliano until he died one night at the barstool. There are a lot of good Little Italy stories.

But it is Monday, and Monday is a school night, so I say goodnight to Russ and Kerry and pay my bill. I walk out into the December night air, look up at my little American flag friend, atop the Faust Landmark. He’s standing out straight and pointing north. Perhaps this unseasonably warm weather will last a few more days.

Little Italy, 501 E. State St. is open Mon. through Sat., 4:30 to 10:30 p.m. Deli Italia (the deli right next door that is associated with Little Italy) is open Mon. through Fri., 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Sat. 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Telephone: 963-0099.

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