Sometimes being good isn't good enough. Sometimes you have to resort to stratagems.
Tom Ferguson started out in the restaurant business delivering pizzas part-time in 1968. He operated his own carryout-delivery place on the north side for two years, then lost his lease and moved the business to Roosevelt Road near Oak Park Avenue in Berwyn. Giovanni's Pizza, named for his father-in-law and specializing in Italian food and ribs, built up a strong local following, but Ferguson could never get much attention beyond his own neighborhood.
"Places like Carson's and Leon's--restaurants with multiple stores--are the ones that get written up," says Ferguson, a blue-eyed, sandy-haired man with a graying beard and a heavy cigarette habit. He was born in Mississippi, but his voice is pure Chicago.
"We'd called all the papers, and even sent ribs to the food writers from the different papers. That didn't get us anywhere. We sent them to radio people, and we found that maybe one of five radio people would mention you--'We're eating ribs from Giovanni's Pizza'--but except for Clark Weber, they didn't gear in on how they felt about them."
Then, in 1985, Ferguson heard about a competition in Cleveland, Ohio, for the "best ribs in America." He explains, "There are national cooking contests for almost any type of product--pizza, chicken, specialty restaurants, special recipes. You read the trade magazines, and you find out where they are. It can do a lot for a business to enter them. You're competing against some of the best chefs from around the country." The Giovanni's team entered the Cleveland contest, and out of 53 restaurants it came in 6th. On the basis of that showing they were invited the following year to represent Illinois in the World's Invitational Rib Championship in Richmond, Virginia. They took first place and a $10,000 check--fortunately.
"These things are very expensive," says Ferguson. "I'd say that, for the Cleveland event, before we even left we had $20,000 invested--in salaries, hotels, product, and so forth. They let us sell our product to the public, so we just broke even. In Richmond, we lost our ass. If it hadn't been for that $10,000, we probably wouldn't have gotten back home, we were so broke."
But that win in Richmond was Ferguson's first big break. "One of the reasons that we entered was that one of the judges was a food writer for the Tribune. We figured that, no matter what happened, he would do a story that a Chicago restaurant competed. Well, we won, and the headline read, 'It takes a Chicagoan to show the south how to cook ribs.' Our business doubled overnight."
Since then, they've taken first place in a contest in Akron, Ohio, in 1988; in Naperville, they came in first in both 1988 and 1989. Last year they returned to Richmond, where they came in third. Ferguson shrugs off the comedown: "There's a lot of good ribs out there." Besides, he can afford to be magnanimous: "Now, when we go to Richmond, we are swamped. From the time we open our booth in the morning to the time we close, we've got long lines waiting to buy our ribs."
His recipes and techniques were proved in another venue last fall: Ferguson's dentist won first place in the Trib's annual amateur Ribfest using Giovanni's ribs, sauce, and cooking instructions. But that just proves how subjective such contests really are, Ferguson observes. "The year before, he entered it and did the same things, and didn't get anywhere."
Ferguson's recipes are based on what he learned at Biasetti's, where he used to deliver pizza; owner Art Biasetti, he says, based his recipes on what he learned at Twin Anchors. "[Our ribs] are very similar to theirs. Usually, in the restaurant business, you tend to cook what you've learned. You can get creative, but that's the base. I don't think there's many people that sit down and create new menus when they open a restaurant, except maybe somebody like Melman, with a test kitchen. So I refined their rib recipe.
"The pizza recipe we did completely develop here. The first pizza maker who came to work for me in '71 was a baker, who worked for me part-time; we developed the crust and sauce together. We use high-quality cheese and pizza sausage, and fresh vegetables for the toppings. But the sauce and crust are what make a pizza." Pizza is still a mainstay at Giovanni's; Ferguson says he sells 400 on a typical Friday night, and last year they got Inside Chicago's nod for Chicago's best thin-crust pizza.
For Giovanni's ribs, Ferguson uses baby back ribs. "A lot of people use spareribs, but they tend to be more fatty and more gristly. Ours have more meat." He gets them from a Forest Park supplier who provides "the most consistent-shaped and -sized rib I've found in the area."
They're moist, tender, and flavorful, and the thick sauce--an intriguing mixture of sweet and tart--complements rather than overwhelms the pork. A half-slab dinner, with bread and a choice of potato, salad, or coleslaw, goes for $8.50, whether you eat in or carry out; a full-slab dinner is $13.50. Also on the menu are chicken ("soon to be famous"), pasta dinners from $4.95 to $6.95, steaks, sandwiches, and seafood.
It's a family business: Ferguson's wife of 27 years, Betty, handles the books, and their son Steve runs the restaurant. Daughter Nikki is in college majoring in hotel and restaurant management. While they're interested in expanding their business, they're not going to rush into anything. Last year they moved into a new building just a few doors down from their old restaurant; it's stylishly, if not timelessly, decorated in pinks and mauves and quarry tiles, with imitation art deco lamps and a stuffed pig on a counter in the middle of the dining room. You can buy bottled sauce in the restaurant and in a few grocery stores in places like Reno, Nevada, and Midland, Michigan. "I haven't had any luck getting it into stores here," says Ferguson. He's also trying to market a line of precooked ribs.
The family is considering opening a second restaurant, in Naperville. "I wouldn't expand into the city--at least into the trendy parts--because not too many restaurants last a long time there. We've got a good neighborhood business, a good trade from all over the area, and we get out- of-towners. When the restaurant show comes through in May, for those five days we're jammed with people from all over the country."
Says Ferguson of the comestible that put him on the map: "Ribs are probably the most talked-about food product in the country today. Everyone has their own opinion about which ones are best--but it's my opinion that the best ribs are the ones you cook yourself."
Giovanni's is at 6823 Roosevelt Road, Berwyn (708-795-7171).
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.