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Milk Shakes From Electric Trains, Guacamole Made to Order, and Marco Conti's Latest Venture



Daniel Cowing and Mary Ann Gulizia opened BOXCAR CAFE at LaSalle and Division with visions of families stopping in to enjoy sandwiches and milk shakes amid the couple's toy trains and train-related art. Trouble was, there just wasn't much demand for cereal and chocolate milk among the indigenous power lunchers. Then the city erected a bus shelter in front of the cafe, blocking street visibility and squelching plans for an outdoor patio. Five months later--and a year after the restaurant's opening--Cowing and Gulizia found a storefront on Wrightwood and took their trains north. Nestled between two Lincoln Park schools (Alcott and Saint Clements) and a park, the BoxCar is now in a position to draw its target customers. Inspired by Cowing's favorite childhood restaurant, Snackville Junction in Beverly, the couple filled their shop with knickknacks and art with a train theme: huge hand-painted steam engines and boxcars stretch across the walls, vintage train posters frame the counter, and an electric train travels the perimeter of the room, delivering shakes and sundaes to the cafe's seven tables. Panini, made with pressed ciabatta rolls, are the mainstay of the menu, but there are cold sandwiches, muffins, scones, and cookies as well. "Everyone's trying to be a Starbucks junior, but we wanted our cafe to be more relaxed and suitable for bringing kids," says Cowing. The BoxCar does serve coffee--a strong brew from Intelligentsia--but offers kid-friendly drinks like hot chocolate and made-to-order fruit smoothies too. The junior menu also features hot dogs and PB&J sandwiches. Outdoor seating will be available next summer. BoxCar Cafe is at 723 W. Wrightwood, 773-325-9560.

In 1996, Porfirio Balderas opened THAT LITTLE MEXICAN CAFE, offering what he calls "new Mexican food": not just the usual burritos, tacos, and enchiladas but also specialties combining classic Mexican ingredients in unique ways. "We always ate mango and papaya, but I started making them into salsa and serving it with my dishes," says Balderas, who in his 20 years in the restaurant business has held just about every possible position: from dishwasher to busboy to host to chef. Balderas's food was so popular that he needed more space to meet demand. That Little Mexican Cafe's new home is more than double the size of the original space, with an enormous kitchen to accommodate both dining room orders and Balderas's expanding catering business. The menu continues to defy expectations--house specials include sweet potato flautas stuffed with tender shredded duck and lamb taquitos. The guacamole is made tableside with a molcajete (giant stone mortar and pestle) and comes with warm chips (or, if you ask, a basket of warm tortillas). An impressive range of reasonably priced and sophisticated Argentine and Chilean wines are poured by the glass, though margaritas are still the most popular drink. Later this month, Balderas will reopen the old Sherman Avenue locale as Cabo Grill, with a lighter Mexican menu dominated by seafood. "There won't be any burritos or tacos at that one," he says. That Little Mexican Cafe is at 1010 Church, Evanston, 847-905-1550.

Marco Conti has owned half a dozen notable restaurants over the past 20 years, including the two La Risotterias, La Locanda, Marco!, and a carryout place called Goodfellas. Late last year Conti combined the last two and spent $3 million renovating the result, which he called FERRARI RISTORANTE. His timing could have been better. "With 9/11, the war, and the economy, people aren't going out to expensive restaurants as much," he says. He's responded by lowering his prices by 30 to 40 percent and shrinking his menu. "The quality is still the same, but I order daily now so I don't have inventory or waste," he says. There's still a daily risotto and several pasta dishes on the menu along with osso buco, pork shanks, and lamb chops, some of which have decreased in size to suit the lower price tag. While the menu now features 10 rather than 30 items, the wine list is still the same, with primarily Italian wines ranging in price from $28 to $300. The restaurant's location, on Clybourn near Fullerton, makes street parking nearly impossible, but valet parking is available. Ferrari is at 2360 N. Clybourn, 773-348-2106.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Eric Fogelman.

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