You've got the red vinyl booths as you walk in, a terrazzo floor that could survive an earthquake, a tin ceiling in a pattern that is no longer made," says Guido Nardini of Club Lago, the 14-table Italian restaurant he runs with his brother, GianCarlo, in River North. Club Lago was founded by the Nardini brothers' grandfather 50 years ago this month. And while the neighborhood has been almost completely transformed in the intervening decades, the restaurant remains virtually unchanged. As Guido says, it's "a good old joint that has been through its years," and he wouldn't have it any other way.
Back in 1926, young Gus Lazzerini came to the States from a little town in Tuscany called Castelvecchio. "As cliche as it gets," says Guido: "He came here with not a nickel in his pocket and with a very slight handle on English." He worked in banquet halls and waited tables in restaurants until the mid-1940s, when he opened his own place, a diner called Jenny's, on Madison across from the original Chicago Stadium.
In late 1951 or early '52, Jenny's burned down. So Lazzerini took his wife, Ida, and two daughters, Gloria and Joan, back to his homeland for a six-month vacation. They met up with family he hadn't seen in more than 20 years, as well as some old friends, the Nardinis, who lived in the nearby town of Barga.
When they returned to Chicago, Lazzerini found an Italian restaurant called Lago Cafe for sale at Superior and Orleans. He bought it, keeping the decor pretty much as it was, adding some of his own family recipes to the menu, and renaming it Club Lago. His wife agreed to do the bookkeeping.
"Before this area was 'River North,'" says Guido, "it was print shops, factories, warehouses, sidewalks with weeds growing in them. On the weekends you could hear crickets chirping. There was no residential property anywhere. We were, for years, the only restaurant in probably a four-block radius." As a result there were usually lines out the door at lunchtime. The loyal mass of working-class customers knew where to get food that was not only delicious and plentiful but also affordable.
In the late 50s and early 60s Gloria worked for her father, waiting tables. When she turned 19 she visited Italy again, this time falling in love with the Nardinis' son Francesco. A year later, on another visit, they were married, and Francesco returned with Gloria to Chicago.
In 1980 they took over running the restaurant from Gloria's parents. "I used to keep the books for my father-in-law before I took over, so I knew the business," says Francesco. "I didn't have to do any advertising, because the advertising was already the quality of food, reasonable price, and excellence of service." Though he'd been working as an accountant, Francesco loved to cook, and he set about finding a few new recipes.
Club Lago serves primarily northern Italian food--which, explains Guido, "means more meats and mushrooms as opposed to fishes and tomato sauces. It's good country fare. Our baked clams are the best in the city. I think our meat sauce will change your religion. That and the tomato sauce have been here since inception."
The famous green noodles al forno are one of Francesco's favorites: "Sometimes the name of the dish itself can be a winner. It is nothing else but flat pasta made with spinach--that gives it the green color--covered with cheese and butter, and forno is oven, so it is cooked in an oven. It's a simple dish, but the amalgam of taste is quite great."
GianCarlo recommends the veal piccata, with a mildly spicy sauce and capers, whereas the bracioline all'agro (veal in a lemon, oregano, and white wine sauce) is described by Guido as "a simple dish that's out of this world." There's also the Guido Sandwich, which is "the biggest sandwich you've ever eaten," says its namesake. "Meatballs, roast beef, and Italian sausage baked with peppers, onions, and cheese. It's a hog--a two-person sandwich. There are 13 of us who have finished it in one sitting."
In 1998, Guido and GianCarlo took over managing the restaurant. Like their grandfather and father before them, they've resisted making changes, though they've extended the hours (the kitchen now closes at 10 most nights instead of 8) and put a new sign out front. Instead they're doing their best to preserve the restaurant's old-school reputation, greeting customers personally at the door and remembering them by name when they return. They've even added items to the menu at customer requests.
A portrait over the bar of the three generations serves as a reminder of where they came from. "It's been great," says Guido. "It's an honor to carry on. It feels really good to know that there are restaurants or coffeehouses or bars that stay around for only three months or three years, and we've been serving food on the same terrazzo floor and looking at the same tin ceiling that has been here since 1893."
"I think we're preserving something that's been lost," says Guido. He mourns the passing of "places like the Golden Ox and Zum Deutschen Eck, places that were good old joints that have now gone by the wayside for one reason or another. I like that this is a time warp to the 50s. It's been here since 1952. Something's been done right. So let's keep it."
Club Lago is at 331 W. Superior, 312-951-2849.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.