Rose George is making chop suey when I arrive at Vito & Nick's on the South Side of Chicago. She tells me to wait a second and then turns to shake my hand. She has a vice-like grip. It's 11:00 a.m. on a Wednesday, and the bar is already half-filled with regulars drinking beer; Rose has been there since 2:00 a.m., cooking and “taking care of things,” including making chop suey for her employees and some regulars.
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In the early 1920s, Rose's grandparents, Vito and Mary Barraco, opened Vito's Tavern. Mary, who was Sicilian, did most of the cooking, and they sold basic fare such as sandwiches, sausages, meatballs, and spaghetti in Chinese takeout containers. In 1945, Vito's son Nick joined the business and they began selling pizza.
Twenty years later, Nick took charge of the business and relocated it to its current location on South Pulaski Road. On opening day, instead of calling it “Nick's Pizzeria” as expected, Nick paid homage to his father by calling the restaurant Vito & Nick's. Rose is now the third-generation owner, but she still adheres to the business philosophy instilled in her by her grandfather. “He used to tell me, ‘Remember something, Doll’—he always called me Doll—‘you’re working for the working-class person. Keep it affordable. And never vary the quality of the product, even when times are bad.‘”
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The dining room is a dizzying hodgepodge of colors and textures: teal chairs and booths, white-and-blue linoleum floors, avocado-green carpeting on the walls, and blue holiday lights dangling from the drop ceiling above the bar. But it all works. You can't imagine it any other way.
Soon Rose and I are watching Kevin Martinez, aka “Bacon” (all the employees have nicknames–Moe 1, Moe 2, Yano, Buddha), make a sausage pizza. He runs a ball of dough twice through a dough sheeter, rendering it a consistent ¼-inch thickness. The sheeter is as old as the restaurant, and Rose is lucky to know a repairman who can fix it when it goes down. He slides the dough onto a semolina-dusted wooden pizza peel, trims it with a pizza cutter by about an inch all the way around, ladles on a generous wash of sauce, and spreads it edge to edge.
Next, he sprinkles on a very light dusting of mozzarella—which, he explains, helps the sausage stick—before taking small, dime-size pinches of fresh sausage and mashing them into the dough with his thumb. He follows with a heavy blanket of mozzarella and, finally, a sprinkle of dried oregano. I blink, and the pizza is in the oven.
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The oven—a 1965 Blodgett—is a relic, complete with a cobbled-together assortment of tools for the specific cleaning tasks it requires. One tool, referred to as “the Q-tip,”is a sawed-off broomstick with a wad of towels wrapped at one end. There's also a garden hoe, and the other half of that broom, its bristles whittled down to almost nothing.
The pizzas at Vito & Nick's are baked until they're dark—dark enough to have some customers send them back to the kitchen, complaining that they're burnt. It's the way Nick insisted they be baked. According to Rose, Nick used to stand at the counter adjacent to the pizza oven, watching the pizzas come out of the oven. If they weren't well-done enough, he'd yell, “That's canary! Put it back in!”—implying that the cheese had gone only from white to golden (canary), not to the spotty brown he demanded.
After sampling several pizzas that were baked until they were well past canary, I ask Rose, now 70, if she has plans to retire. With a smile and a nod of certainty, she says, “Mmm-hmm, when I'm 6 feet under. Why would I ever want to stop doing something that I have a passion for?”