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Feature Fri Sep 07 2007
Taste of Melrose Park – a year younger than Taste of Chicago – is smaller than its big city cousin, but size is only one difference. At Taste of Melrose, 74 of 76 vendors are not restaurant owners but simply neighborhood families who come together every Labor Day weekend, drawing upon homegrown recipes to sustain and celebrate the shared heritage of what was a predominantly Italian-American enclave.
At this fest, everything is two bucks, which means you can taste a lot for a little. There’s something besides food going on here, though: there’s the vibrant collective memory of the local community, reinforced by rituals like the yearly reenactment of a Rat Pack performance. Joe Rosa, who sells some of the best tiramisu you’ll ever have, remembers when Sinatra and his crew would come to Slicker Sam’s, his dad’s old restaurant a few blocks away.
So I had to ask, “What did Sinatra order?”
Joe told me, “Meatballs with no garlic. Everything with no garlic. My mother would have to cook special for him.”
Mother’s kitchen is the model for many vendors here. For Don Siciliano and his mom, the family had no trouble deciding what to serve.
Don told me, “What my uncle said was let’s do something like fried Bologna, which is something like everyone from the neighborhood could identify with. We had fried Bologna sandwiches in the morning times, on the weekend, before a Cubs game, I’d be having a snack, when I got home from work, my Uncle would make a fried Bologna sandwich, and we’d sit there and share one, and that’s how this all started…"
Don’s mom, Linda Nelson (nee Siciliano) added, “My grandparents and mother said, you know, during the Depression, everyone ate fried Bologna, because it was a way to enjoy a sandwich that was moderately priced.”
I spotted a cop – Officer Treffins from MP PD - enjoying one of Don’s fried Bologna sandwiches, and he told me, “I’m Sicilian…We grew up on this…this was a staple. You want lunch, here’s a Bologna sandwich.”
There’s a community sense here that I don’t pick up at Taste of Chicago, an undercurrent of culinary traditions, passed down from parent to child.
I spotted a vibrant, slender woman serving small bowls of food. Her name is Corinne Ariola Principe, and she told me, “We sell artichoke casserole. We do not have a restaurant. This is our mother’s homemade food, and we do it just for the joy of it. I wear my mother’s smock; it’s ripped and my girlfriend sewed it. My mother’s been gone 24 years and I wear it every time I make a tray of artichoke casserole. It adds the touch, and that’s why it tastes so good cause my mother’s helping me make it."
One of Corinne’s customers – Deena Slobodecki – chimed in. “I dream about the artichoke casserole. I have dreams about it. It’s so good. It’s just, it’s just I wake up and I just have to have it.”
Performing on Connie’s Pizza stage is Dick Biondi, the “Wild I-talian” of Chicago radio. Mention this legendary jock to anyone over fifty, and they’ll probably have their version of the tasteless joke that allegedly got Biondi booted off WLS in 1963. So I had to ask about the famous joke, and Biondi revealed the secret behind the Chicago legend.
“I wish there was a famous joke, but that joke I never told. What happened was, believe it or not, I was fired because I got into an almost physical battle with the sales manager of the station, because there were so many commercials on my show, and they just told me to go home and I did. But my last night on the air, Bob Hope had his show on the air, he told the joke about the short skirts…he did it, and I got blamed for it, and he was on the network, but I never said that one.”
Biondi entertained the older folks, asking them to come up and dance, making corny observations that the crowd loved, not because they’d never heard those comments before, but because they had.
What people seem to love about this festival is the sense of the same, a reassuring reiteration of the familiar, something they know and love.
While eating a pepper and provolone sandwich from Fran Piemonte, I asked her why she keeps coming back, and she told me, “I just love stuff like this. I see people I went to high school with. At Taste of Chicago, I don’t think the people know each other, you know.”
Taste of Melrose Park is more than Antney’s Italian lemonade, Diana’s homemade pasta fazool, and Patti’s Eggplant Parm; beyond and behind the food, it’s the old faces from the neighborhood who come back to cook, share, eat and remember.
As Linda Nelson asked as I finished the fried Bologna sandwich, “Did you like it? It’s just like it used to be, right?”