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One Heck of a Cook



Don Rose was upset.

One of Chicago's most authentic Italian chefs had been arrested in connection with a dozen murders in Italy and Rose never got to try his food.

Chicago Sun-Times critic Pat Bruno gave the chef's cooking at the Bravissimo restaurant three and a half stars. The insalata di mare "sang with scintillating flavor," Bruno wrote. The penne al caviale was "firm yet chewy."

Twelve FBI agents arrested chef Carmine Esposito, 31, on March 12 while he was talking to a woman in a booth and wearing one of his thousand-dollar sport jackets. Italian police say Esposito is one of Italy's most wanted fugitives and the leader of one of the country's most vicious crime rings, the "Nuova Camorra Organizzata," which operates near Naples. Four of the murders linked to Esposito were of women. Other charges include trafficking in heroin.

Esposito, who had been the chef at the restaurant at 508 N. Clark for about a year, was known to his employees as Giovanni and spoke little English, though he told FBI agents he was John Michael Phelan (of Irish descent) and a native of Milwaukee, though he could barely pronounce "Milwaukee." A federal magistrate at an identity hearing March 13 ruled he was in fact the fugitive Esposito, who fled Italy in 1984 to avoid a three-year prison sentence following an extortion conviction. Esposito and Josephine Laventura, reportedly his wife, are co-owners of the restaurant, federal officials believe. She makes all the pastries. Agostino Siciliano, who told an employee that he raises racehorses, is said to hold the liquor license. When Siciliano visited the restaurant, Esposito cooked him special meals.

"I knew the chef as Giovanni," said lawyer Philip C. Parenti, a frequent patron of the restaurant who, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, was "quickly summoned" to represent Esposito. "I want to point out that I was called in the day after the arrest," Parenti said when asked. "It wasn't as though I was sitting there finishing my spaghetti." Parenti's favorite foods were the carpaccio and the spinach ravioli with cream sauce, he said.

The FBI agents who stalked Esposito before the arrest raved about the food, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas J. Scorza, who coordinated the investigation at the request of the Italian police.

"I never got to eat there myself," Scorza said. "My wife and I tried to get in one night but they were winding down the kitchen. It's too bad."

"He was one heck of a cook, what can I say?" said Paul Camp, Chicago Tribune restaurant critic. Though Camp gave the restaurant two stars, a star and a half less than Bruno, he praised the "succulent and tender" grilled scampi and noted that the "seductive aroma of rosemary wafts off the moist chicken" and that the food was "some of the most authentic-tasting Italian food in town."

The Kelsons, Allen and Carla of Chicago magazine, could not be reached for comment.

Studs Terkel was a frequent patron. "I thought the food was great," he said. "I love spaaaaghetti, plain old-fashioned spaaaaghetti. I got it there and I felt so happy."

"Everybody loved Giovanni, said a former waiter. "He was the nicest guy. He had a beautiful wife with long brown hair. He invented all the recipes. When he cooked, he pushed up the sleeves of his Giorgio Armani jacket and didn't care if they got wrinkled or not. He was that kind of guy. Once a huge fat woman came to eat and had the creamed ravioli and said it was the best thing she ever put in her mouth."

This may be one of the first times in America that someone involved in criminal proceedings has been a gourmet cook. Former FBI agent and organized-crime expert Bill Roemer racked his brain trying to think of a similar situation and could only come up with Dominic Blasi, who worked at Ben's Beef Stand in Melrose Park. Blasi was bodyguard for the late crime syndicate chief Sam Giancana, who was shot seven times in the head while sauteing escarole and ceci beans in sausage grease in his basement.

There was of course the recent pizza parlor scandal, in which a Sicilian mafia boss and 17 others were convicted for selling $1.6 billion worth of heroin through the parlors. But there was no veal shuddering in a cream sauce.

Chef Esposito is now in the Metropolitan Correctional Center awaiting his extradition hearing April 22. So, as of this writing, is former alderman Wallace Davis; maybe Esposito is teaching him how to cook.

Don Rose didn't even want to talk about it. He's crabby and embarrassed because he's the only restaurant critic in town who didn't get to try his food.

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