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Italian-American home winemaking + Joseph's Food Market + La Focaccia di Elena

RST | Oct 3, 200310:36 PM

The following is an excerpt from the article by Dominic Candeloro which I am linking below. The title is "Chicago's Italians: Immigrants, Ethnics, Achievers, 1850-1985" ( It is an account of the massive upheavals during the 60s that changed the nature of the Italian community in Chicago:

"...government policies such as urban renewal, public housing, and the building of the interstate highway system combined to destroy the inner-city neighborhoods. First was the building of the Cabrini-Green Housing Project, which helped drive the Sicilians out of the Near North Side in the 1940s and 1950s. Then came the construction of the expressway system on the near south, west, and northwest sides, which dislodged additional Italian families and institutions, including the church and new school of the Holy Guardian Angel. The exodus headed west along Grand Avenue, eventually reaching Harlem Avenue. In the early 1960s Mayor Daley decided to build the new Chicago branch of the University of Illinois in the Taylor Street neighborhood. This meant that approximately one square mile of the heavily Italian neighborhood would have to be demolished. Almost simultaneously the Roseland-Pullman Italian community fell victim to real estate block busters who profited from the expansion of the black ghetto by scaring white residents into abandoning their neighborhood and their new Church of St. Anthony of Padua.

The overall result of all the positive and negative forces during the post World War II era was that, except for a few noteworthy pockets of Italian settlement, Chicago's Little Italies were destroyed. With them have gone the sentimental sense of identity and security that the continuity in customs and familiar faces of the old neighborhood offered..."

I am including after this post a few more urls with information on the brutal uprooting of the Italian west side and also on Florence Scala, who fought valiantly against this wholescale destruction of a way of life. It is because of this mass uprooting during the midcentury decades that Chicago today does not have the prominent "Italian" presence of-say-New York's Little Italy. Despite the persistence of small pockets near the central areas (notably on Taylor Street and in the tiny isolated 24th/Oakley neighborhood), the Italian community has been dispersed and driven literally to the western fringe of the city where another stretch of Italian businesses could be found at Harlem.

It came as a big surprise to me then to discover signs that the Chicago-Italian community is not at all moribund. Through three small encounters over the weekend, I found that it retains many strong and vital links to the traditions and customs of the old country.

1.) While out foraging for mushrooms at a Chicago forest preserve last Saturday, I ran into a couple of fellow-foragers who turned out to be Italians (I had thought at first that they might be Czechs or Poles.) The first man I met told me that he is out looking for "cauliflowers" (presumably what I was looking for: hen-of-the-woods, Grifola frondosa). He told me that a lot of local Italians go out to the forests at this time of the year to look for wild mushrooms, just as they do back home. The second man I met told me he's Calabrese and that he is also looking for "cauliflower" which in his region is called "nasche". Both of these gentlemen are in their late 50s/60s, do not speak English very well and seem to have immigrated only in the last decade or so.

2.) An email exchange with annieb regarding verjus (plus agresta/ab-ghureh + sapa/saba etc) led me to go check at Joseph's Food Market. No, they didn't have verjus (will post on verjus separately) but outside the store were pallets stacked high w/ recently-shipped 5 gallon buckets of MOSTO (grape must) for winemaking ($35-60 per bucket depending on grape variety). On other pallets were 36 lb cases of fresh grapes shipped in from the California Central Valley (Madera, Lodi etc). There were Zinfandel grapes ($24), Barbera ($20), Cabernet sauvignon ($24) and Merlot ($24). They also had a certain "uva di colline" but I found no information for this variety in Jancis Robinson, in Anthony Hawkins' wine glossary or in Bob Thompson Wine Atlas of California (it's probably an unidentified Italian variety grown since the old California days).

Home winemaking is an important pursuit among Italian-Americans in other US cities with a sizeable Italian community; winemaking is so important a part of the Italian community in South Philadelphia for instance that the city supports several winemaking supplies shops, wine competitions etc. (See:

What I didn't know is that this custom of preparing one's own wine in one's own home/cellar is also quite common in Chicago. In addition to the raw materials (the pre-pressed must or the whole bunches of grapes), Joseph's also sell the entire range of home winemaking supplies. I saw several sizes of oak barrels (Tonnellerie Vernou) going up to a capacity of 50 gallons, demijohns (damigiani) in case one prefers to ferment in glass, small basket presses, grinders and so on.

Joseph's Food market
Meats, Fish, Deli, Produce
Homemade and Seasonal Specialties
8235 W. Irving Park Road
(773) 625-0118
Closed Mondays

3.) The service at Joseph's (specially at the meat counter) is excellent. The selection is fair: frankly, there are better Italian selections in the city. They have the usual range of cured olives, bottled olives (Cerignola from Puglia etc), cured meats (soppressatta etc), cheeses (tuma, caciocavallo etc) Some of the cheeses look like they might not have been handled/shipped/kept according to the highest standards. There is a large, excellent selection of Italian cookies (amaretti, lemon cookies etc) sold by the pound. I do not remember seeing fresh pasta but there are various pre-made stews etc in the cold cases.

The glory of this shop however is the baking done on premises under the separate business name of La Focaccia di Elena

La Focaccia di Elena
(773) 625-0118

From their one-sheet list of focaccia prices, this seems to be some kind of catering operation. But you will find various kinds of meat, cheese or herb-stuffed rolls over the deli case. They all generally run $1.75 each for a 6 inch or so roll. I took home a loaf of garlic-herb bread (about 15 inches long, $2.75 or so) which was oily, dense, gorgeously-shaped, delicately crusty, richly aromatic from the herbs and olive might be the finest example of a garlic-herb loaf from any bakery! I think that this bread should turn out to be a top contender if we ever have a bread tasting (and we probably will!) focused only on breads from old-school Italian bakeries.


Links re: West Side and Florence Scala

[BROKEN LINK REMOVED] (an old discussion from this board)


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