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
2034 W Division
Chicago, IL 60622


Del Rio: The Best Kept Secret of Chicago-land Restaurants

Del Rio's Entrance Accompanied by Antique Signs

Mike Phillips

There are so many restaurants that people say are “the best.” In my opinion, Del Rio Restaurant really is the best. It is a well-kept secret that has yet to reach a mass audience. There aren’t too many restaurants that have stayed up in business for more than 80 years, and done so without using advertisements. Del Rio Restaurant, however, has made such accomplishment and that is why many patrons consider it to be the best Italian restaurant there is. No need for flashy advertising. Del Rio Restaurant relies on one important aspect that many restaurants have forgotten, just serve great food and the rest will take care of itself. This has been the proven business model for Del Rio Restaurant, and with nearly a century in business, it seems to be working. Well, this is my gift to the world because I have an interview with the owner, the visionary behind all that is Del Rio, Bill Pigati.

How does Del Rio Restaurant fit into the community?

Del Rio has always been in the same location. It is a staple in the area. Different generations of families have been coming here for all those years. The older generations have passed it on to the following generations. I’ve lived in the area a good deal of my life, so I understand what people around here appreciate, which is good food and a family atmosphere. The diners aren’t so much our customers, but friends who come by every now and then for some food.

So where are your recipes from? Are they family recipes?

Yes they are, I used to sit with my Grandmother when I was around 3 or 4 years old, and just cook with her. Luckily I have a good memory and I was able to remember the recipes and how to prepare the foods.

Has Del Rio Restaurant always been in your family?

No, the first owner had it for three months, and around three months into owning the restaurant they sold it to my grandmother. Del Rio was originally a Tango-themed restaurant when it opened in the 1920’s. The man who originally opened the restaurant was enamored with Deloris Del-Rio, who was a Mexican movie star. So when it first opened there used to be an area in the back of the restaurant for a band to play tango music. The reason the restaurant was sold was because of the married couple that owned the restaurant. The wife was worried that all the young ladies would try and steal her husband. So the wife sold it to my grandmother in 1923 or 1924, in essence to keep her husband.

Is Del Rio Restaurant more Northern Italian cuisine or a Southern Italian cuisine?

It is more of a Northern Italian cuisine, but to be exact it is more modenase (a style of cooking that comes from the Italian town of Modena). It uses more crème sauces, and the rice is always with saffron. There is also a lot of veal and a lot of fresh fish used in this style of cuisine. There are very little desserts, those come more from the Southern part of Italy, like Sicily.

A Humble Entrance to Del Rio

A Humble Entrance to Del Rio

Everyone loves the performance of opera singers that Del Rio Restaurant has during the Holiday season. Where did the idea of having the opera singers come from?

I used to work with the symphony orchestra in college, and used to take singing classes. I always really enjoyed singing and the opera. When I first took over the restaurant from my parents, I would bring in singers on Friday nights…unbeknownst to the diners. We would take the stage at 9 and it was our job to entice the audience and get them interested in the singing. I eventually had to stop because the restaurant would start to fill up at 6 o’clock and people were just waiting for the singers at 9. So I had to stop because people would just wait around for hours.

How long have the opera singers been coming to Del Rio Restaurant?

Since 1970, I wanted to continue the singers, so I figured for two weeks out of the year, I would have four opera singers come in around the Holidays and sing. It gave me the ability to enjoy the singers while also allowing a special experience to happen for all the people at the restaurant.

Del Rio Restaurant is pretty much known by word of mouth which for years has been passed on from one generation to another. Why so little advertisement?

Because we are so well known through word of mouth, and we have a fairly long list of returning friends who come to eat regularly, we figure we don’t need to advertise. The advertising is just a hassle. The review magazines have a tendency to play up big name chefs, or owners or size of the restaurant, we feel the Del Rio can stand up on its own, and it has for the last 80 some years.

Where did the décor of the restaurant come from? Has it changed much in the last 10 or so years?

We’ve had the same type of white-checkered tablecloths since the 20’s, and the wood on the walls is from 1948. A friend who used to come in and eat put the walls in. His grandkids still come in to this day, so we leave all the wood in as homage to him. The bar is a family heirloom; it was my grandfather’s bar.

What would you consider to be Del Rio Restaurant’s specialty?

It’s hard for me to say, it’s like asking someone which child is their favorite. I’m always changing things because I want them to be perfect. An aspect that I really like about our restaurant are the almonds. The idea of the almonds come from back in the old days, people use to throw almonds at weddings, as a form of celebration. The almonds we have are the same color as confetti that’s used. So we have that almond dish as a symbol of celebration, anything people want to celebrate, the almonds are there for them to do so. Back to your original question, people really love our gnocchi entre. (type of pasta)

The People's Favorite - Gnocchi Dish

Any thoughts about expanding Del Rio Restaurant? Or possibly opening up another restaurant?

Not opening up another restaurant if that’s what you mean by expanding. We plan on expanding the first floor of the restaurant so more people will be able to come in.

In your opinion, what makes Del Rio so special to so many people?

We have a great staff, extremely nice and they treat you as a friend not a servant. I also have been everywhere we get our food. I’ve been to New Zealand for the shrimp…we’ve been getting our meat from the same guy for 40 years and the chocolate [we carry] comes from a small place in Brazil. I have inspected everything. I think that’s why it’s so special. People know they’re not getting cheap ingredients. I take pride in making sure the ingredients we use are the best. As my grandmother used to say, “In this world nothing stays the same, everything changes and you better get better.” I think that’s a good motto to live by, I’m always trying to keep Del Rio the best it can be.

Check It Out:

228 Green Bay Road

Highwood, IL


C. Manny’s Underlying Support System

Kelly Aarstad

Incredible, fresh food is not the only thing guaranteed at C. Manny’s. When you are treated like family at C. Manny’s, it’s no wonder that an entire neighborhood would petition against them from moving.  Long-standing employee María Elena Rodriguez remembers when the lease was up and they were forced to tell their customers the restaurant would be changing locations. The warm and friendly atmosphere accompanied by the authentic Mexican-Cuban fare was going to be missed by many.

What made you choose to work at C. Manny’s?

Well, I was working with Manuela’s brother [the owner] at the time and I had asked his wife how Manuela was, and she had told me that she had just opened up a restaurant [and] they had 99-cent margarita special on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays from 3 to 6, which drove in a great crowd. There were no Mexican restaurants in the area, whatsoever. It was just what the neighborhood was asking for. Our first customers were mostly families. Many of them actually became like family to me. From there, they recommended it to other people, and soon enough, people came from all over the neighborhood. The bond between C. Manny’s and the neighborhood was strong from the very beginning.

How much time would you say it took for the restaurant to draw in people from the neighborhood?

No time at all. Since day one, we were busy all the time. We had very specific rush hours. From 12-3 PM, it would be jam-packed for lunch. Then it would slow down for a while and, sure enough, we’d be running around again by 6 PM. Everyone wanted to come in because we had windows that surrounded the front of the building, so people could look in. At night, we would light all of the candles, and dim the lights. People passing by would be attracted to the nice, welcoming atmosphere.

It sounds like you had a really strong network of regular customers at C. Manny’s. What did you do to prepare them for the move to Irving Park Road?

We didn’t really have to do any advertising. The news was spread by word of mouth about a month before the move. We eventually put up a huge sign when it got closer to the move. Also, we’ve had the same phone number for the past 20 something years, so it wasn’t hard to find us. Besides, it’s not that far of a stretch, we’re just 2 blocks away from the [previous] location. There was actually a big meeting over at the community center because the patrons didn’t want us to move. We were looking for a place, the lease was due and they couldn’t find anything closer. Over 200 people from the neighborhood voted because there were no nice family restaurants in the area. They wanted our restaurant, a nice family restaurant. But the move ended up being a great opportunity for us, because on top of former customers we got a lot of new people on the other side of Irving Park to come to C. Manny’s.

An old newspaper article about C. Manny's

Were there any changes made to the restaurant, food etc. to draw in customers at the new location?

Our food recipes have been then same for years and years…while the waitresses, like myself, have also been the same for years and years! We’ve really kept everything the same, even the margarita recipe. I would have to say the décor is really different than the past location, though. We’ve hung up the zarapes (Mexican string puppets) instead of plants because we’ve received so many compliments on them. A lot of the time, it’s the first remark to come out of a customer’s mouth. Now we have white tablecloths instead of green and white striped ones. We also have glass table covers and vases filled with different flowers depending on the season. It gives the restaurant a really nice and refined look.

What do you think keeps people coming back to C. Manny’s?

Besides the food being absolutely fresh here, our customer service is [a] priority. Everyone is treated like family and ends up becoming like family. Personally, I like it when the server or bartender takes the time to talk to me and make me feel welcome. That’s exactly what all of us do here at C. Manny’s. Everyone is very welcoming and pleasant here, and I’d have to say that’s the biggest reason people keep coming back to us.

My family and I had started going to C. Manny’s around 15 years ago and we still do. We’ve always been treated like family and that’s why we’ve always come back. It happened to be a great thing that C. Manny’s did move because they have practically doubled their customer base without losing any of their former customers. The fact that that C. Manny’s customer service has highly contributed to its flourishing success is at the very least, remarkable.

Author, Kelly Aarstad and C. Manny's Employee, Maria Elena Rodriguez