By Deirdre Graziano
The world is a better place with Trattoria Gianni, and, as the world turns on its axis, Lincoln Park is a better place with Gianni in our midst.
Gianni’s personal coming to America story is woven within his Trattoria. He came to America as a boy at 16. Not an unusual immigrant story, my mother came to America at 16. Both Gianni and Christine Agatha came to live with a relative already in the states, both had an aunt who opened her door and heart to them, becoming their lifeline in America. Though years apart, both lived in Lakeview and both went to high school in Chicago. Gianni went to Steinmetz, my mother to Lakeview. But Gianni worked after school, traveling alone by El, passing Lincoln Park on his way downtown to The Italian Village where he was a busboy — a busboy who dreamed of opening his own restaurant though he spoke no English. English was my mother’s language. Gaelic, her heritage language, was forbidden, forbidden to her, to her family and all the Irish who lived in Northern Ireland. For my mother, though, the transition to a new country had to have been easier because of the language.
Gianni’s immigrant tale is one of success and that is how we in Lincoln Park became blessed with Trattoria Gianni. Gianni is in his sixties now. He still lives in Lakeview but walks every day to his Trattoria. He walks six days a week so we in Lincoln Park can indulge in outstanding Italian fare, some of which incorporate his family recipes–secrets that will not be revealed but will be willingly shared on your plate. Today new recipes, the beneficiary of Gianni’s trips back home to Italy, are quietly incorporated into the menu. Northern and southern dishes, selected gems, are added to his menu for your pleasure, perfection added to perfection.
As a child Gianni dreamed of owning his own restaurant. I do not know what my mother dreamed of at 16. But for Gianni, his dream came true, solidified on Halsted Street in a simple building with a dreamlike garden that allows a taste of Italy for Lincoln Parkers in a serene setting. Years ago, Gianni asked Lincoln Central to help him negotiate an agreement so he could create a garden in the empty side yard next to his restaurant. We helped and his side lot garden dream became a reality for all Lincoln Parkers to enjoy. My mother for a short while lived on Mohawk Street with our family. She died before Gianni’s dream became a reality. I know she would have loved the trattoria. She would have loved Gianni and his story and would have celebrated his success. Two immigrants raising a toast with their families.
But neither my mother nor we could have imagined a new Pandemic coming. COVID invading and changing our world, suddenly and harshly causing many a dream to falter and many a dream to die. Restaurants shriveled to carry out only, and eventually many collapsed. Trattoria Gianni faltered, closed for a short while, but Gianni was here to stay, was here to survive no matter the effort. Had he not conquered Chicago when he was a mere sixteen? Trattoria Gianni was here to stay even if it cost Gianni nearly everything. He kept his staff, a man faithful to his employees, a man who remembered the young Italian boy of sixteen who could not speak English but who could bus tables. He was never going to abandon his staff. One for all and all for one, tips were shared.
After closing for five weeks, Gianni re-opened. His garden was in many ways his savior. Outdoor dining was deemed safe so Gianni planned, turning his green garden into a safe haven for his loyal customers. At first he rented a tent at an outrageous price, but then he discovered the garden igloos which he still uses during Chicago’s brutal winters, igloos that are safe, that are warm embryonic domes which add a magical touch to his lighted garden.
His staff and Gianni still struggled to stay solvent but with the domes there was hope. Pandemic distancing was provided in geometric wombs that were both safe and whimsical. Weekends, the crowds came. His loyal followers reassured. Gianni, once again, could be the smiling host whose most important job was to please his customers with delicious meals in a warm accepting comfort environment.
Soon the domes will be rising, but with climate change, hopefully, this fall will allow open outside dining with no need for the domes. For a graceful while we may be free in the open air.
My family ate within the garden this month. No domes yet. It was a Tuesday night, and the garden was near empty with three groups outside in the garden and three more groups inside the dining room. Gianni, smiling and concerned, spoke with every one of us like we were family. The staff hovered, waiting to reach out and offer their service at our slightest indication. They were grateful for us as we were for them. A kindness in serving always on display. Most of the servers are Italian. My son-in-law is Italian. As he and Gianni talked, I later learned that Francesco, many years ago, applied to work at the restaurant. Another Italian seeking refuge while he adjusted to living in America and learned English. Today my Italian son-in-law has realized his dream and is working in his field. He was a silversmith in Italy designing and hammering hand-tooled large silver plates. There is no market in Chicago for such a product, but today my Francesco designs jewelry with his Mexican partner, Jose. Two more successful immigrants. While we ate and tasted one another’s meals, a quiet satisfaction filled the air. We talked, we laughed and for fleeting moments we forgot the pandemic.
Gianni’s allows such feelings. Excellent food, outstanding service in a peaceful garden which allows you to forget what the world is facing. Who could ask for more during these troubling times. Gianni is a gift, and his restaurant is a treasure.
By the way if you are interested, my husband had the pork chop, my son-in-law the chicken, my daughter the seafood pasta. I indulged in a lovely seafood mix while we shared polenta and mushrooms (a northern dish) and a salad. For dessert, a tiramisu (which my son-in-law makes at home) and which we (discerning tiramisu aficionados) solidly applauded and, of course, we shared traditional cannolis–a dish our northern Italian Francesco has never made.