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All Over the Map

The Fruits of Her Labors

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It's a warm morning in Roscoe Village, and the Guatemalan restaurant El Tinajon has not yet opened for lunch. Owner Olga Pezzarossi's four grandchildren--Daniella, Pablo Antonio, Nathan, and Anthony--are lined up at a table, eating fried plantains, black beans, corn chips, melon, and eggs. Olga's mother, Adelaina, is polishing glass vases filled with fuchsia, orange, and aqua flowers while two of Olga's daughters, Wendy de Borde and Karina Bastidas, adjust the tables for lunch.

"We had a little flood," announces Pezzarossi. She now lives in Guatemala City and is just in town for a visit. Nevertheless she's talking on the phone and supervising her staff with unflappable calm while workmen fix the floor. Within 20 minutes the floors are dry, and the restaurant is ready to open.

Pezzarossi originally came to Chicago from Guatemala in 1969. She met her first husband here; after he died, she needed a way to make a living and found a job drying silverware in the cafeteria at Illinois Masonic hospital. She worked her way up from silverware to manning the steam table to cashiering to serving in the doctors' dining room--"all in six months," she says. Finally she got a job typing in the hospital pharmacy, during which period she also worked part-time as a cocktail waitress and did medical paperwork. "We all learned real fast to be independent," says de Borde, who manages El Tinajon, with her grandmother supervising the inventory.

In 1984, despite difficulties getting a loan and finding a landlord who would give a single woman a chance, Pezzarossi opened the restaurant's first location, at 4638 N. Western. "I don't think I need a man or to be in the shadow of one to be responsible," she says, remembering the struggle. Pezzarossi cooked, Karina waited tables, and Wendy was the accountant and busboy. Assistant manager Mercy Guzman, who started as a waitress, remembers when Pezzarossi didn't have enough to pay the taxes and the staff pitched in their own money to help. Pezzarossi says she had a hard time being accepted as a business owner even when she moved to her present spot in 1995. "If people don't see blue eyes or blond hair, they don't give you the treatment you deserve as a person," she says.

A few years ago Pezzarossi moved back to Guatemala so Claudia, her daughter by her second husband (from whom she is divorced), could learn about Mayan culture. She returns to Chicago two or three times a year to drop off a load of spices, reconnect with her staff and family, and oversee preparation of her Guatemalan specialties, many of which are family recipes.

Unlike its national flower, the White Nun orchid, Guatemala explodes with color: "The president lives in a green house. My mother's house in Guatemala is orange and yellow," says Bastidas, herself framed by the orange and yellow dining room with its aqua trim. The cuisine, with its orange shrimp, red and green peppers, and earthy black beans, is no exception.

Pepian antigueno, a traditional Mayan dark-meat-chicken stew, features a sauce of sesame seeds and pumpkin with garlic, onions, tomatoes, and tomatillos, plus guajillo, ancho, and poblano peppers. Mayan revolcado is a stew of finely diced pork gizzard, tongue, heart, cheeks, liver, and ears. "It's very popular in the bars all over Guatemala," Pezzarossi explains. "They usually give it to you as an appetizer to eat with beer."

Guatemalan refried black beans are served with fried plantains, sour cream, and hard-boiled eggs. Black beans figure on the dessert menu too, encased in plantain dough and seasoned with sugar and cinnamon rather than salt. "If you travel in Guatemala you'll see black beans morning, noon, and night," Bastidas says.

Seafood dishes include shrimp seviche and caldo de mariscos, a seafood soup with mussels, snow crab legs, fish, clams, and shrimp. Mexican burritos, tacos, and tostadas hark back to Olga's early days, when people expected to find Mexican tastes in any Latino restaurant.

"When I was 24 I said to myself, by the time I'm 40, I have to have a business or live on Lake Shore Drive in a high-rise with a convertible car and a good job," Pezzarossi says. By 33, she had her restaurant. At about the same time, she was also running Chicago's first Guatemalan beauty pageant. "It was my dream when I was young to be the queen in my school, but my mother didn't let me," she says.

Now she'd like to make opportunities for other Guatemalan women. "I want to be the mayor of a small town in Guatemala where a lot of Mayan women live so I can help them to trust themselves," she says. "In Guatemala women either work at home or in the fields. Why can't they be bosses and have more men and less women working in the fields?"

El Tinajon is at 2054 W. Roscoe, 773-525-8455.

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

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