Bridgeport is one of Chicago’s “up-and-coming” neighborhoods. New foodie havens, a booming arts scene, and hopping nightlife beckon twenty-somethings and art types from across the city. While it is certifiably hip, Bridgeport feels strangely isolated from its surrounding communities in terms of geography and character, which gives it a quirky, organic hometown vibe.
Halsted Street, historically Bridgeport’s main drag, is lined with family businesses. One restaurant is cluttered with what looks like the merchandise from a resale shop; down the street, a New Agey specialty store sells love potions. While each shop has its own niche, their respective owners are not afraid to talk up neighboring establishments: listen and you can hear customers and staff chatting about a local bike shop, or spreading word that Godzilla has made a special appearance at a nearby toy store.
Like many South Side neighborhoods, Bridgeport–originally called Hardscrabble–has a long history of racial tensions and gang wars mirroring its arc of ethnic change. Remnants of Bridgeport’s Eastern European roots can be seen in the architecture: steeples from countless Catholic and Orthodox churches rise above Bridgeport’s streets, though the church-goers are a few generations removed from those Irish, Lithuanian, and Polish immigrants. More recently, the neighborhood has seen a large influx of Chinese and Mexicans. The neighborhood’s ethnic diversity contrasts starkly with that of the surrounding communities, which has perhaps insulated it further from change and strengthened its strong sense of identity.
Despite the wave of redevelopment that has landed Bridgeport the “it-thing” tag, the new is not incongruous with the old. Those dedicated to the burgeoning art and restaurant scene are also committed to preserving Bridgeport’s historic architecture and culture. Instead of competing with one another, the new and old combine to create an atmosphere where it seems everyone is your neighbor, even if they live miles away.
Best Place to Drown in Marinara
In the shadow of the Dan Ryan-I55 interchange, the cars create a draft to flap a White Sox flag beside a neon sign calling out, “Eat At Ricobene’s.” Founded in 1946, Ribocene’s was in the neighborhood decades before the highway was built, and it still draws deep from these roots. Inside, the walls are filled with faded black-and-white photos of family portraits, children beaming on bicycles, and newlyweds. From back in the kitchen, ’50s R&B drifts out, a bit distorted by the sounds of the grill and fryer. Based on the quality of the food, the restaurant may well be there long after the soaring overpass has crumbled away. Offering truly classic Chicago fare, from deep-dish pizza to fat and greasy fries to hotdogs-hold-the-ketchup, this place is authentically Chicago. Yet as the menu suggests, Ricobene’s is most recognized for their “Famous Breaded Steak Sandwich.” Waves of thin-sliced steak, puddles of “red gravy” (similar to a basic marinara) and mounds of mozzarella all barely fit into the thick Italian bread. Decaled in a conservative 1940s font, the drug-store-style window modestly claims, “Good Food.” Yes, my friend, good food.Â 252 W. 26th St. Monday-Thursday, 9:30am-12:30am; Friday-Saturday, 9:30am-2am; Sunday, 11am-12:30am. (312)225-5555. ricobenespizza.com (Isaac Dalke)
Best Global Grocery
Cermak Fresh Market
If you ever need a quick indication of a neighborhood’s ethnic makeup, take a look within the local grocery store. Bridgeport’s Cermak Fresh Market, part of a local chain, reveals a community that doesn’t quite fit into any single mold. Equal parts standard supermarket fare, Italian cheeses, Asian-style seafood, and Hispanic seasonings, this market stays well-stocked with every culture’s basics. With its reasonable-to-cheap prices and haphazard layout, Cermak seeks to optimize the grocery shopping experience in terms of both amusement and savings. Twenty-five-pound bags of various rices are found beneath peaches and plums, while the baby food is next to olive oil. One aisle begins with Italian fare like dried pasta, transitions via canned tomatoes, and ends with Mexican treats and a floor-to-ceiling display of six-pound hominy cans. Perhaps Cermak Fresh Market also reflects Bridgeporters’ tendency to buy groceries in bulk.Â 3033 S. Halsted St. Daily, 7am-9pm. (312)460-3460 (Maria Nelson)
Best Geometric Shape
The 5,000-plus square foot gallery of the Co-Prosperity Sphere acts as classroom, concert space, party floor, and de facto headquarters of post-Marxist bohemian activism. A self-proclaimed “experimental cultural center,” the Sphere is the brick-and-mortar outpost of the Public Media Institute, a non-profit that organizes the annual ten-day long Version Festival, which highlights the cutting edge of art, music, and arts education every spring.Â The same folks turn out Lumpen Magazine, a publication that blends the aesthetic with a hard-line political agenda. The main instrument of the group’s cultural activism is the Co-Prosperity Sphere School, a weekly gathering that aims to teach its eager pupils about art in Chicago. By providing a community space that serves art through production, display, and education, the Co-Prosperity Sphere is taking an active role in actualizing their desire to transform Bridgeport into a “Community of the Future.”Â 3219-21 S. Morgan St. Hours by appointment. (773) 837-0145. coprosperity.orgÂ (Candice Ralph and Tyler Leeds)
Best Traditional Italian
Gio’s Cafe and Deli
Located on the corner of two quiet residential streets, Gio’s Cafe and Deli has the charm and red-checkered tablecloths of a small town pizza parlor without the greasy, half-baked pizza. Instead, Gio’s offers imported and homemade pasta, Italian paninis, fried appetizers, and chicken entrees. Because it is both a cafe and market, you can grab lunch on the go, eat alone at a table, or just stop in to chat with the incredibly friendly staff. The best part of Gio’s, however, isn’t on its plates–it’s on their shelves. Imagine your kindly Italian grandmother’s pantry, multiply each item by five, and put it up for sale, trinkets and all. Stop into Gio’s if you are craving fresh pasta, top-notch bruschetta, or high-quality Italian olive oil, but also if you ever need a two-inch tall cheese grater, a six-pound can of chickpeas, or a pizza cutter whose handle is an Italian chef figurine. 2724 S. Lowe Ave. Monday-Saturday, 8am-9pm. (312)225-6368. gioscafe.com (Maria Nelson)
Best Savory Pastries
Pleasant House Bakery
If you’ve ever fancied a hearty meal from the other side of the pond, make a trip to try a royal pie from the Pleasant House Bakery. Despite the name, royal pies are closer to peasant food–hot, and filled with rib-sticking ingredients like steak and ale (or for vegetarians, mushroom and kale). The restaurant is tiny enough that the whole kitchen is visible behind the counter, so you’ll probably get to see Art Jackson, the owner, filling up the pastries while his wife Chelsea takes your order. However, truth be told, it’s not the pies but the little details that make this restaurant stand out: a simple radish salad from the owners’ garden, home-made sodas, delectable deserts, or the Vanilla Ice Pandora radio station in the background. Try visiting on a Friday, when the owners fry up fish-and-chips for a crowd. 964 W. 31st St. Tuesday-Thursday, 11am-9 pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-10 pm; Sunday, noon-8 pm. (773)523-7437. pleasanthousebakery.com (Sharon Lurye)
Best Watering Hole
Maria’s Packaged Goods & Community Bar
For those weary of trekking north for quality booze, look no further than Maria’s Packaged Goods and Community Bar. A bar in the guise of an ordinary storefront, Maria’s provides two layers of alcoholic inception: the first, a liquor store, and the second, a tavern concealed behind an old freezer door. Boasting one of the largest selections of craft beer in the city, Maria’s has 16 artisan brews on tap and over 300 in bottles. Beers range in price from $2 for a “random shitty beer,” $3 for “bartender’s choice,” and up to $6 for microbrews. If beer isn’t your preferred way to get buzzed, Maria’s concocts mixed drinks rivaling Chicago cocktail heavy-hitters such as The Whistler. Chandeliers crafted from beer bottles cast a ruddy glow indoors, but during the warmer months patrons can bring drinks to a back patio area. Clientele ranges from old Bridgeport regulars to newly transplanted hip-young-things. True to its moniker, this joint is clearly a community watering hole. 960 W. 31st St. Sunday-Friday, 4pm-2am; Saturday, 4pm -3am. (773)890-0588. community-bar.com (Anna Fixsen)
Best Nature Walk
Henry C. Palmisano Nature Preserve
Rededicated last November in honor of the late outdoorsman and local sporting goods store owner Henry C. Palmisano, this 27-acre green space has had many lives. Until 1970, it was Stearns Quarry, a 387-foot-deep limestone mining site. After that, the gaping hole in the ground became an unnamed dump for construction waste. In 2004, the Chicago Park District began taking proposals for renovation, and shortly thereafter the location became Site Design Park, or Park No. 531. Today, in addition to Palmisano Nature Preserve, this natural recluse just south of the Stevenson Expressway is known by some as Mount Bridgeport–named for the man-made hill rising up out of the old quarry to tower over the surrounding houses along Halsted. Navigate around the hill, however, and the park reveals a self-contained water recirculation system replete with a retention pond and vegetation specifically selected to filter road salts in the winter. Meanwhile, a 1.5-mile long elevated walkway and a gravel running track snake through the park. The design also facilitates activities like fishing and kite flying, while preserving historical features such as the quarry’s limestone wall and mining elevators. Walking along the secluded quarry, it’s easy to leave behind the bustle of the city. Yet the top of Mount Bridgeport claims one of the best views of the Chicago skyline. 2700 S. Halsted St. (Maria Nelson)
Bridgeport Coffee Company
Founded in 2004, Bridgeport Coffee Company was the first product of commercial redevelopment along the intersection of 31st and Morgan. Once the old time neighborhood of the Daley political dynasty, this intersection is now known for drawing a crowd of fashion-conscious students and young professionals. Bolstered by Maria’s Packaged Goods and Community Bar and Pleasant House Bakery across the street, Bridgeport Coffee Co. acts as the scene’s focal point. Nonetheless, this coffee shop is also simply a great place to sit all day with a pot of mango black tea, a microbrewed cup of on-site roasted coffee, or a Filbert’s root beer bottled a few blocks west in McKinley Park. The atmosphere is cozy and welcoming with tasteful wood paneling and accents, chalkboard menus, and old photos of Bridgeport landmarks. The staff is chatty and will poke fun at customers while sharing their secret to Chicago’s best cup of coffee (hint: it’s the delicate, light roast). 3101 S. Morgan St. Monday-Friday, 6am-9pm; Saturday, 7am-9pm; Sunday, 8am-7pm. (773)247-9950. bridgeportcoffeecompany.comÂ (Maria Nelson)