Caffé Gelato: A Few Scoops of Sicily in Chicago

Jessica Geiger

Caffe Gelato exterior look

Even though it may not feel like summer, believe it or not Chicagoans, it is just around the corner. And what better way to spend a hot day in the city than with a cool Italian treat like gelato? This creamy delight is like American ice cream, but churned slower, allowing for less ice and air which really brings out the flavor of the refreshing treat. On top of that, it’s also healthier: lower in both calories and fat, helping everyone keep their beach bods in check. I’ve been hearing a lot about Caffé Gelato, a gelato shop (AKA a gelateria) in the heart of Wicker Park, just off Division and Damen.  I stopped in for a chat with part-owner and manager of the family owned spot, Vince Geraci, about bringing Sicilian-style gelato to Chicago.

Can you give me a rundown of the history of Caffé Gelato?

We started about seven years ago when we went on vacation for the first time to Sicily with my parents to see their hometown of Gaccamo. When we were on our way there, my dad told me, “We have to try this gelato. I haven’t had it since the last time I was here.” I said, “Alright, let’s try it.” So, my family and I went to have this gelato and ever since then we were having it morning, lunch and dinner!

I remember that’s exactly how it was when I was in Italy! I felt like I had to stop in at every corner gelateria I saw!

Welcoming interior and product selections

[Laughs] That’s right! It was on every corner! …So, it was three days since we had gotten back to the States and I couldn’t stop thinking about the gelato! Like, “Come on, Pop! We gotta open something here, in Chicago!” And ya know, I was just thinking about gelato, I wasn’t thinking about business, and he thought it was a good idea. We went back to Sicily and through family friends we started making our contacts. And that’s how it got started.

So why did you pick Wicker Park to open up your shop?

Well, we saw the big sidewalks and the area was destined to change a lot.

You were so right. Wicker Park has changed so much in the past seven years. How has your business changed within that time?

Actually, we’ve still got a lot of people that have been coming since day one and we’re getting a lot of new people. With being around for this long, we keep getting busier and busier each season because we’re only open March 1 through October 31.

So you’ve got a lot of regulars that come in?

There are those guys that are always like, “Oh, I just want pistachio” or “Coconut and mango” or there’s this lady that always comes in for her 2% latte. There’s always the teacher, the cop, the lawyer, the local realtor.

Sounds like you’ve really established yourself as a neighborhood favorite. What do you feel Caffé Gelato brings to the Wicker Park?

Caffé Gelato provides a family feel. It’s a place you can go on a date and not spend a lot of money, or just go to after dinner. It’s truly an authentic place that we brought to Chicago. We didn’t wanna open up another Baskin-Robbins. We wanted to open something authentic that brought us back to Italy without paying the thousand dollar airfare. [laughs]

What can you tell me about your gelato?

Gelato, we like to say, is half of the fat but more of the flavor, and essentially that’s what it is. We don’t use false flavoring; we don’t do anything like that. [If] the flavor is hazelnut, we buy the best hazelnut. We go to Sicily and get the wild-grown hazelnuts or pistachios, they make it into a paste, and that’s what we use to make our gelato. For the fruit flavors, we use actual fruits. It’s all natural. It’s all wholesome food. We make it every morning.

Do you always have the same flavors available or does it vary day to day?

Rich flavors of gelato

We change our flavors through seasons. Like, for October (our last month) we do pumpkin. So I make it into a pumpkin pie kind of gelato. In the summer we focus a lot on fruits…but, we  keep a lot of the staple items, like pistachio. If we took that away, we’d have a lot of angry customers—and hazelnut! Every gelateria, in order to be able to say they’re a gelateria, has to have hazelnut. That’s what they judge gelato shops by in Italy: their hazelnut.

You serve coffee too, right? Can you tell me about that?

We buy our coffee beans directly from the small farmers, like from Sumantra or El Salvador, all depending on what climate is going on there. For instance, we were buying from Mexico for a little bit, but then they had some big thunderstorms so we couldn’t buy from there anymore, so we had to find another farm.

I know that it’s more than about gelato and coffee here. What else do you sell?

We do gelato, coffee, and paninis. Those are our three. Well, and then our pastries. [Laughs] So, those are our four main things. We don’t really wanna go any bigger than that, because we want to keep it small but keep the quality, ya know?

Do you offer your paninis during all business hours or are they only available at certain times?

After five o’clock we don’t make the paninis because we get a long line [for gelato after dinner].

Before I grab a scoop of my own, my final question has to be, what is your favorite flavor?

Nociola is my favorite, hazelnut. It was my first.

So this summer, stop by to cool off at Caffé Gelato and grab a scoop of this creamy Italian treat.  Who knows, maybe your first will be your favorite.

Check It Out!

Caffé Gelato
http://www.caffegelatochicago.com
2034 W Division
Chicago, IL 60622
773.227.7333

Shokolad Pastry & Cafe: An Interview with Owner Anya Fedus

Katia Pavlyuk

Anya Fedus, owner of Shokolad Pastry & Cafe

Shokolad Pastry & Café is becoming increasingly popular amongst the local residents of Ukrainian Village, Humboldt Park and Wicker Park. What started out mainly as a pastry shop is now known for its ethnic Ukrainian dishes, freshly baked goods, modern design and pleasant atmosphere.  All these elements add to the dining experience and make it even more enjoyable. The dimly lit lanterns, long wooden counter and two-person tables are accented by yellow sunflowers. These elements  enhance its relaxed, yet elegant, décor. I spoke with the owner, Anya Fedus, as she revealed the details on the development of this unique Ukrainian café.

So Anya, tell me about the history of Shokolad Pastry & Café.

The idea was a combination of the never ending praises of my mom’s talents and an offer to buy an existing small business. The previous owner of Old Lviv approached my mom asking whether she would be interested in buying her restaurant. We gave it some thought and decided that it might be a good idea considering that both of my parents have no retirement plans and this might be a way to set one up. So with the encouragement of all of our friends we sat down and planned how we would like to set up and run our business. After a few months of calculations and negotiations we decided that buying an existing small business would not suit us. We easily found a new development space that was within our price range and gave us the advantage to build it as we saw fit since the building site was just in its foundation stages. After a year of stress and some very hard work we were ready to open.  Our initial menu was half the size it is today and the main focus were pastries, hence the name. However, after we got to know our customer base, we added more ethnic Ukrainian dishes and heartier food options. Today we are a full service restaurant, caterer, private event rental space, & a pastry shop.

Who came up with the name for the cafe? How is the name significant to you or to the other owners and to the food that Shokolad caters?

I came up with the name and I have to admit it took some good convincing to have my parents agree that it was a good fit. I chose the name Shokolad because I wanted to use a word for something sweet that has no language barriers. I think our name implies to our Ukrainian and non-Ukrainian customers that our business is ethnic and that it offers desserts and pastries. My mom has many years of training and experience as a pastry chef so it was important that this focus on pastries is not completely lost by the strong demand to sell other foods.

Cheerful sunflowers decorating the interior

When deciding how to design Shokolad, what did you have in mind?

The interior design was planned to make the space look modern, welcoming, and comfortable. However, designing with a tight budget makes it hard to achieve your ideal result so a lot of it was planned and re-planned many times. As the word spread that we were building up a café, we were approached by several people offering their services and advice for the most efficient way of getting the look we wanted. In the end, we ended up with something totally different from our original plan…but it turned out to work very well.

Since Shokolad is known to serve Ukrainian food and is carrying a Ukrainian name, what is a special dish or desert that really highlights your café’s ethnic uniqueness?

It’s definitely our Varenyky [Ukrainian-style stuffed dumplings]. We serve a wide variety of traditional ones and some invented at our café. We [take] pride in their taste, quality, and uniqueness.

Do you think that the café is significant to the area?

I think that we are one of a kind in our area and that has really worked in our favor. Our menu covers the basics of any popular neighborhood brunch place and offers a wide array of other very unique dishes that are not offered in the surrounding area. Our customers drive in from the suburbs and even stop by during their out of state visits to enjoy a meal with their friends or family at our café. This inflow of customers from outside areas benefits the surrounding businesses in our neighborhood which makes us a small contributor to their well being.

Ukrainian-style crepes: blending French and Ukrainian delights

I think that it has a lot to do with our menu selections…we’ve created a menu that caters to every taste. It offers some very popular American options along with some very ethnic ones. Also we have been very fortunate to get great exposure through the RedEye, Channel 7, and Time Out Chicago recommendations and reviews, which have a very diverse audience and are able to attract customers from all over the Chicago area.

Does the café have any features that make Shokolad special to Chicago culture?

I think Chicago culture is about being diverse and that is the one thing we definitely have. Both our menu and customers are very diverse and that makes us fit right in this great city.

As I recall, for the Halloween celebration held at Shokolad in 2008, you made an effort to invite both Ukrainian friends and Americans to celebrate. From my perspective, it was a great event in which Shokolad Café was the place to gather people from different backgrounds to celebrate this American holiday. So my last question is, if in the future Shokolad has the potential of becoming more then a café but rather a center of neighborhood activity that would invite people to celebrate holidays of different kinds.

I think that’s something that would be great for us and the neighborhood however we are still limited by our space and licensing. We hope to expand in the future and be able to host more special holiday events.

Shokolad Pastry & Café
2524 West Chicago Avenue
Chicago, IL 60612
(773)276-6402

Mindy’s Hot Chocolate

Interior of Hot Chocolate, 1747 N Damen Avenue

Alison Holmes

Bucktown is known for its eclectic and trendy music, fashion, and food—and Mindy’s Hot Chocolate delivers on all levels. Located on Damen Avenue on Chicago’s north side, Hot Chocolate is the epitome of decadent indulgence. The contemporary artisan-American restaurant offers upscale yet casual dining with a variety of seasonal menus for lunch, dinner and weekend brunch.

The restaurant prides itself on giving guests a special dining experience from start to finish—including a comfortable and relaxing atmosphere, exceptional service and amazing food. Interior décors feature a modern, industrial-style design with exposed brick, dark wood-work, clean lines, wood-beamed ceilings, local artwork and a rich color palate of deep chocolates and tans. A sleek, streamlined bar offers full menu service for those looking for a casual dinner, sweet treat or after dinner drink. The warm and inviting atmosphere, neighborhood charm and intoxicating aromas of Hot Chocolate are enough to enchant even the harshest critics.

Owner, Executive Chef Mindy Segal

Since its inception in 2005, Hot Chocolate has become a fixture of the local Chicago dining scene. The decadent cuisine is a created with high quality, locally sourced ingredients. However, in order to understand the creative menu, one must understand its creator.

Owner and Executive Chef Mindy Segal’s passion for her craft is undeniable. No stranger to the Chicago restaurant scene, the three-time James Beard Award nominee for Outstanding Pastry Chef prides herself (as well as her staff) on not only being a master of her craft, but for also fully immersing herself into her greatest loves, food and cooking.

The cornerstone of the menu, and the restaurant itself, is Segal’s use of local artisan farmers, brewers and wine makers. The menu at Hot Chocolate changes with the seasons to ensure that diners get the freshest ingredients to guarantee the best final product. “We make everything from scratch, and try to buy whole animals [to utilize all the parts]….we like to use small producers—preferably local—and we’re very seasonal. I’ve been cooking like that my entire career,” said Segal.

Hot Chocolate’s new head chef Aric Miech is also passionate about creating great food from local sources. “I love it. I get to work on my craft every day and teach people what I’ve learned. During the winter time we don’t get to go to the market as much as the spring and summer, so we use a lot of mushrooms, squashes, root vegetables and grains…but being able to go to the market and meet these farmers is super important. It’s a great opportunity for me. It’s easy to forget where some of the food comes from,” said Miech.

The use of local, seasonal products not only creates great food, it really supports and gives back to the community. Segal makes her commitment to her skill and community very clear. “I’m going to give my guests the best product that I personally can, and I’m going to strive for excellence,” said Segal. And that she does—the proof is in the pudding, so to speak.

Hot Chocolate’s menu features a variety of sweet and savory items including, appetizers, salads, gourmet sandwiches, entrées, cheeses and desserts. The artisan fare is creative and unique. Each dish is hand-crafted and is given just as much time, energy and effort as every other menu item.

Classic entrées include a grilled Kobe flank steak with roasted pumpkin puree and a confit of fingerling potatoes and house-made giardiniera; Gunthrop Farm seared duck breast with a Brussels sprout and bacon hash; and homemade macaroni and cheese made with Rothkase gruyere and Carr Valley mammoth Cheddar.

“Mindy has kinda changed my way of thinking a little bit,” said Miech. “Artisan cooking is very…uh…you don’t play with the food that much. You let the food speak for itself,” said Miech. And that it does.

Chocolate #1

Perhaps best known for its innovative, artfully crafted desserts, Hot Chocolate serves up an extensive cheese and sweets menu capable of pleasing anyone’s tastes. Segal’s signature desserts include Chocolate #1—a warm chocolate ganache and meringue tart with a chocolate soufflé center, salted caramel ice cream and house-made pretzels; Banana’s and Butterscotch—banana brioche bread pudding, banana sherbet, malted liquid butterscotch, cardamom cream and banana cake cannoli; and Warm Brioche Doughnuts, served with hot fudge. Another must-try, and the restaurant’s namesake, is a gourmet spin on classic Hot Chocolate, which is available in six varieties. An array of artisan beer, wine, ports and champagne compliment and enhance any dish or dessert.

Mindy Segal truly is a master of her craft, and it shows in every dish, dessert and detail of Hot Chocolate. With menu prices ranging from $7–$27 Hot Chocolate is a must-try. So if you’re out on the town, want a relaxed dinner or just love great food, this is the place for you. Don’t take my word for it, try it.

Check It Out: Hot Chocolate

1747 North Damen Avenue

www.hotchocolatechicago.com