Let the smell of warm, fresh pasta wafting into the fall air guide you into one of the overstuffed leather booths at Calabruzzi’s CafÃ©. Exposed brick walls, an enormous tri-color decal of Italy on the floor, and an accordion over the speaker system typify Italian-American restaurant dÃ©cor, but the sharp smell of frying garlic will snap you to attention. Calabruzzi’s is about family-style food, not kitsch.
Everyone working at Calabruzzi is noticeably related. Our friendly server, who turned out to be the owner Rosanna Mandile, confirmed that most of the people on staff share her last name. Even the name of the cafÃ©–a portmanteau of Mandile’s parents’ birthplaces, Calabria and Abruzzi–underscores the importance of their family history. Mandile’s training is exclusively homegrown: her culinary skills come from her father whose first job in the United States was as a cook in Italian restaurants, from her work as a teenager in her uncle’s pizza place, and from her Italian aunts who passed down their kitchen wisdom. In short, family is a big deal at Calabruzzi’s, and you can see it in the dishes they choose to prepare and in the people that eat there: an elder member of the Mandile clan drinks at the bar, a couple argues over their meal, and a few families sit with young children for a weeknight dinner.
As expected, pasta and thin-crust pizza are the main offerings here, along with a wide selection of sandwiches and appetizers. The fried gnocchi were small pillows of creamy ricotta and potato, lightly crusted, and served with a vodka dipping sauce. The sauce, though a little bland, added a nice balance of acidity and sweetness to the already plenty tasty gnocchi.
The spaghetti carbonara, made with satisfyingly large chunks of salty pancetta, fresh peas, and velvety eggs, would be right at home served out of a giant bowl at a family dinner. Though very good, the spaghetti could have been a little more al dente, especially since the sauce was so heavy. For those with more creative flavor-pairing ideas, there is also a “make-your-own” pasta dish option, with a large assortment of sauces, noodles, herbs, and other add-ons.
The standout of Calabruzzi’s menu, and the most popular dish, was the potato pizza, a simple, but delicious medley of potatoes, rosemary, Parmesan, and mozzarella. The crust was crisp, as all good thin-crust pizza should be, the potatoes were perfectly browned, and the unfussy flavors of garlic and olive oil were spot-on. The desserts–gelato, tiramisu, and wafery pizzelle cookies with Nutella–were reliable but unremarkable. But after the giant servings, it’s unlikely anyone would be able to eat dessert anyway.
After chatting with Mandile for a bit about the history of the place, we asked what she had envisioned for Calabruzzi when she opened it. Mandile replied that she just wanted people from the neighborhood to come for some good food. With the cafÃ© filled with satisfied friends and families, it seems like she has accomplished exactly that.
Calabruzzi’s Cafe, 3304 S. Halsted. Monday-Thursday, 11am-11pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-2am; Sunday, noon-11pm. (773)247-9999. www.calabruzziscafe.com