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In Store: ice cream good enough to eat during a blizzard

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Daniel Mielniczuk and Pepe Curci, 23-year-old purveyors of "artisanal Argentine ice cream," should be forgiven the untimely opening of the Penguin. This far north, August is not a strategic month to open an ice cream parlor. You might get ahead during the dog days, but before long even the dogged paleteros will be running in from the cold. But in Buenos Aires, where the month heralds the start of spring, they make gelato--helado, that is--the way the Italians intended, and it's nothing like the airy blobs of butterfat northerners call ice cream.

Soccer chums since adolescence, at 13 the two landed jobs at a Buenos Aires heladeria called Venezia, owned by a man whose family emigrated from that canaled city and who has been churning the stuff for over 20 years. Argentina's sizable Italian population is responsible for its fidelity to old-world recipes that call for very little fat and produce the intense, eyeball-rolling flavors and dense textures that make Haagen-Dazs seem vulgar.

Though his father made helado at home, it was three years before Curci's boss trusted him to produce the store's ice cream. He and Mielniczuk put in seven- and six-year apprenticeships, learning to make traditional flavors such as chocolate and vanilla, Argentine innovations like dulce de leche, and creations based on unlikely fruits like the pomelo, ancestor of the grapefruit.

When Mielniczuk's brother, who was living in Chicago selling Chinese herbal medicine at flea markets, reported the scarcity of proper helado in the city, he and Curci began scheming. Four years ago Mielniczuk came north and got a job as a banquet server. Curci joined him in '98. Last August they loaded a secondhand Coldelite Magic Mixer into the back of a former Colombian restaurant in Ravenswood, hung an Argentine flag on the wall, and, guided by copies of their old boss's recipes, began mixing ice cream.

While not purists--the milk is powdered, the vanilla artificial--Curci and Mielniczuk make helado that is nonetheless enlightening. Chocolate, cherry, and caramel rarely taste so unpolluted, and the eggy, Marsala-spiked zambayon is a confounding pleasure. In the spirit of diversification, they also make pizza, but the 18 flavors of helado take priority.

The partners named their venture for the birdlike tuxedoed figures they cut serving diners at Navy Pier or the Rosemont Hotel, but they hope word spreads far enough beyond the neighborhood that they can stop moonlighting in favor of managing a string of stores. Their marketing plan--blanket the surrounding blocks with flyers--has already produced a core of devotees whose patronage is assured. And they claim business hasn't slowed with the cold weather. "The people come in here," says Mielniczuk, "they come back."

The Penguin, at 2723 W. Lawrence, is open daily from noon until 10:30 PM. Call 773-271-4924. They deliver.

--Mike Sula

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

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