4943 N. Damen
Jon Cignarale had been talking about opening his own restaurant for several months before he got the kick in the ass he needed--from a little girl. He'd put in time at Tweet Let's Eat, M. Henry, Uncommon Ground, and Karyn's Cooked, but he was tired of being under someone else's thumb. One fall day he, his wife, and their four nieces were walking past an empty storefront he'd been eyeing as a potential location. Cignarale's wife, Cathy May, pointed to it and said, "Hey kids, this could be Jon's dream!" One of his nieces--five-year-old Emily--looked at it and said, "But the dream's all boarded up."
That, Cignarale says, is when he told himself, "You gotta make a move. If not, go sell real estate." Emily's comment kept him going during the two and a half years it took him to open the new Ravenswood breakfast-and-lunch joint Over Easy. It was a brassy move for someone whose longest previous restaurant gig had lasted less than a year. "I've been pretty much--how can I put this gingerly?--fired from every job I've ever had," Cignarale says. "Cooking job, anyway. I'm a pretty creative guy, and every place I worked was kind of stifling. I never saw myself as a line cook who's just going to follow directions. When somebody says to you, 'You're going to have to change your attitude or we're gonna have to let you go,' it's like, 'I'm not changing my attitude. I'll take off my apron and leave.'"
Before entering the cooking world, Cignarale taught American history and sociology, first at Paul Robeson High School in Englewood, then at Kennedy High School west of Midway. "I had a lot of at-risk kids--lots of gangs, lots of poverty, lots of drug use," he says. "I burned out quick." When he complained to a fellow teacher one day about the mental toll, his colleague pointed out that he'd been teaching only five years: "You got fifteen more to go," he said. Cignarale went home that night and told his wife, "Cath, I can't do this. I want to cook."
First he enrolled in Kendall College's cooking school, where he lasted less than a year. "I was too old," he says. "And it cost a lot of money." Then he embarked on his string of short restaurant stints, each time being let go after only a few months; at Karyn's Cooked he lasted less than six weeks. Still, he learned something at every stop along the way. At Uncommon Ground he was exposed for the first time to the business aspects of running a restaurant. And at M. Henry he came to realize the advantages of cooking breakfast and lunch instead of dinner: "I went in at six, left at four, and I had a life," he says. More important, he saw that "breakfast can be sexy. Breakfast can be cool."
Over Easy's brunch offerings aren't as esoteric as, say, the fruit sushi or jelly-doughnut pancakes at Orange, but Cignarale works hard to keep them interesting, as much for himself as for his customers. He changes the menu, which he calls "traditional with a twist," weekly. Offerings have included a corn pancake with red pepper coulis and sour cream, pancetta-and-cheddar-cheese souffles, tofu chilaquiles, fried bologna with scrambled eggs, and strawberry mascarpone French toast. If he reads an interesting dinner recipe, he'll ponder how to transform it into a breakfast dish.
A few dishes have become standbys: "sassy eggs," served with chorizo-potato hash, cheddar cheese, red peppers, jalapenos, and guacamole, have been a big hit, as has the upside-down apple pancake. It took Cignarale a while to perfect the latter. "You can only eat so many of them, and I was making like ten a day. I fed everybody along the street here--the guy at the dog shop, the guy at the liquor store," he says.
Nearly every dish on the menu pays homage to something or other: "Emily's Dream Pancakes," with blackberries, orange butter, and raspberry coulis, are named for his niece; the ham-and-swiss "retro omelet" stems from Cignarale's fondness for a similar dish at the Diner Grill, where he and his wife used to go on dates. One of his favorite desserts, the banana cream pie at Lawry's the Prime Rib, inspired his banana French toast with rum-caramel sauce and candied pecans. Even his blueberry muffins are modeled after those at the now shuttered Joanne and Sons.
While Cignarale says, "I'm not a clipboard chef--I actually cook the food," he discovered pretty quickly that he couldn't cook it all by himself. Almost immediately after he opened, 25- and 30-minute weekend waits became common (the place seats only about 35), and he was forced to hire more cooks to keep up with the demand. His staff consists mostly of people he's cooked with before. "They all have more experience than I do," he says.
Over Easy's decor is bright and playful. Near the entrance, five wires strung with white wooden eggs run from the floor to the orangeish red tin ceiling. Photographs of produce line the walls. "In terms of the space, I can't take any credit," Cignarale says. "I probably would have had a few card tables and some folding chairs, but my wife insisted we get an architect." Cignarale's favorite aspect of the space? "It's close to my house," he says. "I wanted to run a restaurant that was close to where I lived so I could feel like I was part of the community. I wanted to be somebody that somebody could see the store and say, 'Oh, that's Jon, he owns the restaurant.'" At Over Easy, he adds, "I think I've really found my home."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joeff Davis.