In the second half of the 19th century, Chicago became a huge stopping point for many Italian immigrants. Sicilians flocked to the Taylor Street area (now affectionately known as "Little Italy"); when the Tuscans left Northern Italy, they settled in what became known as the "Heart of Italy" neighborhood, centered near 24th and Oakley on the city's near South Side. Today, the stretch of Oakley that runs through the Heart of Italy has been renamed "Vito Marzullo Boulevard" in honor of the late, legendary alderman who did so much for the people of this neighborhood.
A walk along Oakley in the Heart of Italy always gives one the feel of times past. The buildings that house the shops and restaurants have been around for a century or more, and the city has installed wonderful retro streetlights, which only serve to add to that yesteryear feel. When you come to eat at the restaurants in this neighborhood, be prepared for all Italian all the time. And that's a good thing. Though the food offered in these wonderful eateries may have its similarities, each place has its own distinct style, its own personality and moves to its own beat. Price-wise, all of the Heart of Italy restaurants fall in a similar range, with dinners running roughly $8-$20, making it a great destination for a reasonably priced date.
Come June, don't miss the Taste of the Heart of Italy, the hood's festival of great Italian food and music. In the meantime, make a beeline south and try one of these Italian eateries:
For starters, the Ignotz staff brings warm bread, oil, cheese and baked garlic to your table. Talk about a way to jump-start your engine: This is it. The pre-dinner delights don't end there. A number of solid appetizers are available, including baked clams. The dining area here is intimate and just as welcoming for those looking for a great place for a hot date or to tote a boatload of kids in for a family dinner. Chances are affable owner Roger Wroblewski will stop by your table, say hello and make sure your chow is to your liking. The menu features pastas, a wide range of veal meals, steaks and more. The shrimp versace is melt-in-your-mouth good, and solid pizza dishes are also available. Don't leave without asking for the dessert specials, featuring an assortment of items (tiramisu, pyramid cake) that will make the perfect bookend to your meal.
This lovely eatery features two dining areas, one in the front by the bar section, and a second larger room in the back. The bar area isn't huge, but with 12 seats or so, there's plenty of room to chat while you wait for a table. Both rooms are decorated nicely and always filled with lively patron conversation. Make certain you order the Il Vicinato salad for starters; this salad features your standard array of greens, but comes with assorted meats, blue cheese and a fantastic house dressing. Possibly the finest salad in the city, it's brought to you in a big bowl so everyone at your table can enjoy it. After that, dive right in to any of the pasta dishes you find, many of which come with a Bolognese sauce. The meat-filled ravioli is fantastic, as are the whitefish dishes. Try the filling roast sirloin of beef should you be in a meat mood. This always-tender special is a crowd pleaser.
Of all the eateries on Oakley, Bacchanalia has that 1970s sort of "Goodfellas" look and feel to it. Mirrors can be found throughout the dimly lit dining area, and the tables are set close enough to let you listen in on your neighbor's conversation, should you feel the desire to eavesdrop. There's not a bad dish on the menu, but some of the big winners are scampi alla romana, where you'll find your shrimp resting on a bed of fettuccine served with a marinara sauce, as well as chicken vesuvio and mouth-watering manicotti. The fish specials (tilapia) are often excellent; for dessert make sure you try the tiramisu.
This tiny eatery is a delight. There's a smallish bar up front where you can rest your elbows for a bit, before moving into the two-car garage-sized dining area which features roughly 15 checkerboard tables. Pasta dishes abound: The sausage and peppers and the eggplant parmigiana are definite winners. You'll also find some wonderful whitefish and salmon dishes spiced to perfection. Should you feel like a pasta dish but want something other than standard spaghetti, go for the always-tasty fusilli in vodka sauce if it's on the specials sheet. Meat-wise, the lamb scaloppini will have you returning again and again. La Fontanella is suitable for any occasion, but it is the tiniest of the Oakley eateries. If you need special arrangements for seating, call in advance.
As you approach Bruna's, you'll find bottles of wine resting in the windows; once inside the tiny eating area, you'll find posters and photos of various scenes from the old country. With lively patrons, an intimate setting and a friendly wait staff, this place definitely exudes fun. There are many wonderful pasta dishes to choose from here, but the wise won't pass on the spaghetti carbonara, where the spaghetti comes in a cream sauce with Italian bacon. Other popular specials include veal chops, eggplant parmigiana and spinach-cheese ravioli. When former Chicago cop turned actor, Dennis Farina, is in town, he spends time in all of the Heart of Italy eateries, though Bruna's is one of his favorites.
Miceli's isn't a big league dinner destination like the others in the Heart of Italy and it doesn't pretend to be. This is a lunch joint, plain and simple, and without the flair and cost of the other eateries on the block. Here, you'll find a number of tables set in the midst of this deli, and at lunch the seats fill up quickly. Miceli's serves great sub specials, hot meals like sausage and peppers and linguine and clams, as well as tasty salads; prices range from a wallet friendly $3.50-$8. If you see the spicy tuna steak salad on the specials sheet, dive right in. It will gas up your tank for the rest of the day. Police and attorney-types from the nearby Cook County criminal court's complex at 26th and California frequent this eatery.