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Restaurant Tours: guy remembers grandma

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At a small table in a corner of his new restaurant on North Broadway, Angelina Ristorante, Nunzio Fresta's saying what's on his mind.

"There was a table of six of the greatest-looking guys the other night, I was totally intimidated by them," he says. "But otherwise things are great." So great, in fact, that though Angelina's been open for less than a month, already there have been lines out the door.

"When there's a wait, I send 'em over to Joe's bar next door. They can get a decent bottle of Chianti for $5.75," he says as he jumps up to air-kiss a woman with a brick red Louise Brooks bob. He hugs her and screams how fabulous it is to see her.

"We took Italian lessons together, I think," he says as he sits back down.

Fresta, who is tall and lanky with close-cropped black hair, always one step ahead of the style storm, owned the Jetson-generation Orbit Room, a dance club on Broadway, until it closed March 30. (He was bought out by a big-time developer who's building a big-time shopping plaza on the site.) He opened Angelina together with curly-haired Elite model Callin Fortis, who owns Neo, an exceptionally long lived dance club. The restaurant's name is a tribute to Fresta's grandmother, the saintly Angelina di Sicilia.

Nonna Angelina was a "crack," says Fresta. "She loved the Three Stooges and she loved to feed everybody. Anyone who came through the door, she fed." He says Angelina used to tell him over and over again, "You know why I love you? Because your name is Nuuun-zio."

"I had a vision," says Fresta, "of creating a place like she would've--you have to be a visionary to create anything, right? A place that's been around forever, a place she would've cooked in and fed everyone in forever."

Before he opened the Orbit Room, Fresta ran another restaurant, Nunzio's Cafe, which opened in 1984 and closed in '86. Now he says, "We're trying to be the next Melman, the next Levy, except, well, not so, you know." And then he jumps up to greet more friends.

"Maybe it'll be free soon, maybe they'll leave," the couple sitting next to us keeps saying. They are coveting a more conspicuous table in the corner, where three out-of-place businesswomen in gray suits are sipping coffee. "Maybe they'll leave and we can sit there."

Nunzio knows the three businesswomen as well as the couple next to us. "How was LA?" he asks the woman sitting nearby, Vera. She looks beautiful, her hair pulled back tightly, showing the glow of a half bottle of wine in her belly. "Fabulous, really," she answers, not unexpectedly.

Fresta runs to the back and returns with a dozen old black-and-white pictures of his family and friends. "That's old Mrs. Poloni," he says, laughing and pointing at the photo, "and there's Angelina climbing a hill of snow in Detroit. And there she is with the whole family. I'm back there hiding."

And just as quickly as he's laid out the pictures for us to see, he's gone again, conferring with the chef.

The short photocopied menu lists only a few antipasti, like mussels in a spicy red sauce for $4.95; several pastas, such as linguine with broccoli at $7.95; and only three entrees (two chicken dishes and veal piccata), ranging from $10.95 to $13.95. The quality of the offerings makes up for the lack of variety. Put simply, the food's great.

From the kitchen out back competing aromas flow in: pungent garlic, sweet tomatoes, even a tart lemon zest. The room is noisy partly from the yakkety-yak of the crowd, but the din from the two speakers helps--hip Italian pop music alternating with various Verdi arias.

There are no flowers on the tables; above the front door are only a few baskets, a few gourds; and there's a big spray of dried flowers in the back. Chianti-colored brocade curtains are to the side of the front windows. Starched white tablecloths, crisply folded napkins, and a black-and-white tile floor lend the space an unfussy Old World feel.

The walls, painted by Chicago artist Greg Giesy, are mottled but elegant; sepia-tinted, they were painted to look old, even decayed. Three faux-crystal chandeliers cast a gilded sheen over the narrow room. With only 12 tables, there's a cool-crowd maximum of just 41.

Later, Fresta is sitting at one table, Fortis at another. And now Fresta is telling the waiters to bring more bread to them, nodding toward three guys-with-great-haircuts sitting against the wall. And an extra napkin to the couple up front. And hurry up and open that wine, pointing ever so delicately to a table of two youngish men in frameless round glasses. All this without missing a beat of the conversation.

Soon, they hope, once they get an air conditioner to comply with code regulations, Fresta and Fortis will have a liquor license. For now it's BYO. Whoever brings the bottle signs the label, and all the bottles are lined up against the wall.

Passersby keep stopping to look in and check out the menu taped to the front window. Inside, where it's a little too warm, the waiters continue to scurry about earnestly, carrying steaming plates of food stacked up and down their arms. The music--Dean Martin crooning "That's Amore"--has gotten a bit louder now, and Fresta is back up at the front door hugging some new friends.

"My restaurant's just like Moonstruck," he shouts toward the back. "Just like that, dont you think?"

Angelina Ristorante, at 3561 N. Broadway, is open every night but Monday, 5:30 to 11. Call 935-5933 for information; they don't take reservations.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.

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