4947 N. Damen
When James Ventrella was laid off after 12 years as a producer for Fox News last summer, he asked himself, "What can I do to buy my personal freedom?" After a fruitless eight-month job search, the 40-year-old cashed in his retirement account and sank every cent he had into Ventrella's Caffe, the Euro-style spot he opened in Ravenswood in July. He even gave up his $930-a-month Lincoln Square apartment--he's been staying alternately with his mom, sisters, and friends. But he's taking a bright view of his prospects. "I'm broke now, so how bad can it be?"
Ventrella, whose grandparents emigrated from Italy in the 1920s and '30s, modeled his cafe on the establishments in Chicago's old Italian neighborhoods. "I wanted to pick up a store from Harlem Avenue in, like, 1950 and just drop it here on Damen," he says--hence the many vintage pieces, such as a red-and-chrome cistern sink from a 1930s-era Pullman car and a fridge from the mid-'50s. "I want somebody to walk in here and go, 'Has this place been here forever?'" The building itself dates from 1923; the cafe's tin ceiling is the original one. Even the mint in the iced tea is vintage in a way: Ventrella gets it from his mom, who transplanted it from a garden that her father planted 80-some years ago.
The cafe's small menu stems from Ventrella's memories of the Italian-American shops he frequented as a kid. "That neighborhood place is really what I wanted to re-create somehow," he says. "They don't have a lot, but what they do have is really, really good." In addition to retail items like imported ladyfingers, sparkling water in green glass bottles, and long, paper-wrapped loaves of crusty bread, the cafe features panini, soups, gelato, and sorbetto. Ventrella's Aunt Rose and Aunt Marie make most of the baked goods--biscotti, other cookies, the occasional cupcake--and may soon supply cannoli as well. "There's a little baking war going on between them," he says. Other treats, like the almond croissants, come from Lutz Continental Cafe & Pastry Shop.
Besides the four mainstay panini, which include prosciutto with provolone and green apple and the Ventrella, a caprese with provolone and giardiniera, Ventrella likes to experiment with seasonal varieties, including a Gorgonzola-and-pear version he just added for fall. On weekends he grills Nutella-and-banana panini too. For dessert, though, gelato is the way to go. Ventrella briefly considered making his own before finding out that it would take years of training to produce the quality he wanted. Instead he found a small-batch artisan in Saugatuck, Michigan, who makes flavors like chocolate espresso bean and stracciatella, vanilla ribboned with chocolate. "The Italian pistachio--people cannot get enough of that," Ventrella says. "It's kind of an old-guy flavor, but even the kids ask for it." The sorbettos--including mandarin orange and cantaloupe--are made by the same vendor.
The cafe's other mainstays, coffee and espresso, come from Lavazza, a 111-year-old Italian company. "To me it was very important to have Italian coffee from Italy," Ventrella says. "I have Italians come in and drink a cup of espresso and say 'buona,' and I know I'm on the right track." Of course, he adds, "they also might have been a little homesick, and that helps."
Ventrella can relate--he's been feeling kind of homesick himself. "The living situation has been a great drawback," he says. "So I had to make this place my living room. I wanted to build it in such a way that I was as comfortable as possible here." That explains the sitting-room-like seating area with a fireplace, his parents' wedding photos, two red-and-black chairs he got from one of the Harlem Avenue haunts of his childhood, and the Italian periodicals he grew up seeing, like the bright pink sports rag La Gazzetta Dello Sport.
Don't expect opera on the sound system though. Ventrella used to play drums in the Gin Palace Jesters and other rockabilly bands, and roots music is always playing overhead--old R & B, western swing, straight-up rock 'n' roll. "It's funny to come in a place like this and hear that kind of music," says Ventrella, "but I'm a rockabilly. It's in my heart." For now Ventrella's keeping the bulk of his vintage clothing at his sister's house, but he often wears cuffed-up jeans and a newsboy-style cap of a type known in the 40s as a "big apple."
Aside from his family's assistance and a bit of other help on weekends, Ventrella runs the cafe single-handedly. The hours can be exhausting, but he's enjoying having to answer only to himself. Paid vacation and health insurance are nice, he says, but "those are ways for companies to keep you in check. I never want to have to sit behind a desk and say to somebody, 'Please.'"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson.