A lotsa pasta: Italian Village to celebrate 80 ‘very nice’ years
By Janet Rausa Fuller
March 12, 2007
Plastic spoon in hand, Frank Capitanini dipped into sauces simmering in the kitchen of the Italian Village.
“Very nice, very nice,” he said, nodding to the cooks moving around him.
This is a four-day-a-week exercise for Capitanini, 74. He wants to make sure each spoonful tastes exactly as it should — exactly how his father, Alfredo Capitanini, the restaurant’s late founder, had done it.
The Village, thought to be Chicago’s oldest Italian restaurant, turns 80 this year. For the Capitanini family, three generations of whom have shepherded it through the decades, the motto seems to be this: Change with the times. But not too much.
Secret to longevity
The building at 71 W. Monroe — actually three restaurants under one roof — offers carryout and delivery and recently started doing room service for the nearby Hampton Majestic hotel. They produce a line of pasta sauces sold at Whole Foods and Sunset Foods stores. But the twinkling lights and frescoed walls of the upstairs Village are of a different era.
“It’s like a chocolate chip cookie,” said Gina Capitanini, 48, Frank’s daughter and Alfredo’s granddaughter who now runs the place with her brother, Al Capitanini, 44. “Why put cinnamon in it if it doesn’t need it?”
Italian immigrant Alfredo Capitanini opened the Italian Village in 1927, using a cigar box as his cash register. In 1955, he opened a second restaurant, La Cantina, in the basement.
Business hit a low after the 1968 race riots sparked by Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, said Frank’s brother, Ray Capitanini.
“We came out the door and looked west and saw all the fires,” Ray said. “Nobody came downtown after that.”
But they dug in and held on, and customers came back. Sons Frank and Ray made their mark in 1961 with the opening of the upscale Florentine Room on the main floor. In 1990, it was grandchildren Al and Gina’s turn, with the makeover of the Florentine Room into Vivere.
Gathered around a platter of biscotti in a cozy nook of the second-floor Village, the Capitaninis talk in rapid-fire succession about lasting in an industry where failure often comes in the first three years.
“We show up every day to work,” Ray said.
“We put the customer first,” Gina said.
“There’s always a Capitanini here,” said Al’s wife, Pam.
The next generation
There have been menu flops through the years — frog legs, tripe, ribs. But chicken Alfredo and cannelloni — both Alfredo Capitanini creations, according to the family — remain. The recipes haven’t changed.
Some waiters have been around so long they are assigned to only one table. “With a captain backup,” Al laughed.
The captains, as it happens, wear tuxedos and bow ties.
There’s a fourth generation of Capitaninis coming up. Al and Gina’s children are too young yet, but Gina’s 12-year-old daughter wants to take cooking classes at Kendall College.