When I was in high school our favorite place for dinner was called Leona’s. It was a chain that did a rather good imitation of the real thing. The lights were dim, with little candles in sparkly glass things on the tables. I guess that’s standard for restaurants for plenty of reasons. Hides any dirt, creates a sense of romance, means everything looks very stately when it’s served. The food was mostly unremarkable, if plentiful. You got a whole bunch of bread and a big salad and by the time your pasta and some sauce came, you were mostly full. There was a single item on the menu, though, that kept us coming back and coming back. It was called “Extraordinary Junk Food” and it was simply a quarter-pound of mozzarella breaded and fried. It was absolutely dreadful for you.

All the colors were quiet and earthy. I don’t remember if the walls were that glaring burnt-orange color you get in Mediterranean restaurants, but it’s a good guess that they were. I remember a few big signs designed to look vaguely old-timey that proclaimed Mama Leona’s various personal virtues, and it’s a good guess that there were a lot of black-and-white photos, vintage alcohol advertisements, and garish paintings on the walls. That’s just how you decorate an Italian restaurant of middling quality in Chicago, and everywhere else, from what I can tell.

There was a smoky room attached with a half-dozen pool tables. None of us could play pool and there were little plaques on each one informing everyone that one was to be twenty-one to play. We found this amusing. The room always reeked of smoke (which didn’t bother me one bit at that age, when I lived with my chain-smoking mother full time) and generally the other tables were all taken up by middle-aged guys. There was a juke box in the corner, and occasionally we’d set it to play whatever amused us at the time. I’ve sort of lost track of what things I liked in high school as opposed to before or after, so imagine generic nineties alternarock for the most part. The guys trying to actually play pool laughed at us.

I have a lot of photographic evidence of the place. I took a photography class in high school. Scrolling through, I’ve found that the pool hall was all artsy and weirdly lit with a brick wall and weird acts of abstract randomness all over the place and also that I wasn’t the best at holding a camera. (And there I got distracted for a bit flipping through my teenaged attempts at photography.)

There’s a similar place exactly next door to me now. Roberto’s is authentically a small, independent Italian food place, but without much of a supporting population, while Leona’s was a not-really-independent place surrounded on all sides by people who make for the Italian eatery experience.  One is geographically misplaced, the other mildly disingenuous. The end result is the same, though Roberto’s has an issue where it can’t decide if its ambiance is “grandma’s kitchen” or “self-aware bar.” It tries to be both. Kinda odd in the end.

There’s another sort of Italian joint (actually, there’s also the actually expensive kind, but I don’t go there, so meh). The kind where it’s not artistically dim, it’s dark. Not deliberately dark, just “who cares about light?” dark. The kind of lighting that would seem about right a being from a dimension of closets and slightly-malfunctioning light bulbs. The air is practically gaseous gravy. You don’t want to ask questions about the food. You don’t really want to look at it. You just take what the nice man give you. And by “nice man” I mean strange, scowly person coated in grease (though garbed in a surprisingly white and tidy chef’s coat) who is almost always male and is Hispanic as often as Italian, but the two cuisines work well together, so it’s not as though that detracts from the experience. You will order Italian beef if you have any sense, by the way. Yes, you want it dipped, and yes, you want giardniera, and no I don’t know how you’re supposed to eat the sopping mess but you’ll figure it out and you’ll thank me. And have some fries if you’re really hungry. No harm.

…So the purpose in writing this was to figure out what sort of Italian restaurant I wanted to be the set for my current story, and it’s pretty clear which was the more fun to write about. Decision made!


~ by badandfierce on February 8, 2011.

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