Rather remarkably, Chicago’s Little Italy has survived the construction of the Eisenhower Expressway, placement of the horrible Jane Addams Homes (public housing project recently torn down) right in the middle of the neighborhood, the continued expansion of UIC, and 40 years of urban decay that only began to reverse in the last decade. You can still find some of Chicago’s best Italian restaurants along Taylor Street, but it is Tufano’s Vernon Park Tap that is the oldest neighborhood tavern around.
Since the Depression, Tufano’s has been nestled into a residential side street where it takes its name, at the southeast corner of Vernon Park Place and Aberdeen Street. Tufano’s is best accessible via Racine Avenue because of the ever-growing UIC campus and dead-end sidestreets, and $5 valet is a deal considering that all residential parking requires a permit. A double plate-glass door at the base of a humble, red-brick three-flat leads into the main bar at Tufano’s. Neighborhood regulars gather here at the bar to watch Chicago sports on the TV above a photograph of heavyweight champion, Rocky Marciano, and other famous Italians that have visited Tufano’s, like Frank Sinatra, Tommy Lasorda, Dan Marino, Brian Piccolo, and local politicians – all of whom appreciated dining free from bother. Even Chicago novelist, Nelson Algren, came in before Sox games in the 1960s. Algren appreciated the neighborhood feel that still exists today.
“‘Most of the people knew Nelson, but they didn’t treat him as a celebrity,’ [Chicago playwright and electrical engineer Stuart[ McCarrell said. ‘They treated him as a customer. It was very much a neighborhood place. It sure hadn’t been discovered. I think he liked the Italian liveliness of it. There was a lower-middle class tone to it. It wasn’t exactly a rough place, but it wasn’t a ‘nice’ Italian place with violins playing in the background. He thought of it as a good Chicago place.'”
– excerpt from Dave Hoekstra’s Sun-Times article, “Atmosphere on tap Tufano’s is a bar with soul”
(March 2, 1990)
Diners head through a portal in the bar’s western wall that leads into the no frills but nicely appointed dining room, formed from a one-story brick extension and adorned with multicolored beige linoleum, wood-paneled walls and low-slung wooden tables. The one-and-only menu can be found illustrated on a large chalkboard along the eastern wall. If you’re nearsighted, you may want to bring your glasses or just stick with the specialties, including chicken piccata, eggplant parmesan, lemon chicken, and fried calamari. Paradoxically, Tufano’s offers no beer on tap but a handful in bottles and, more importantly, 16 wines priced under $20.
Tufano’s originally opened as a bakery in 1930, the Vernon Park Tap has been operated by the Tufano Family and now Joey DiBuono, grandson of the original owners. The waitstaff are all relatives or family friends, and service is no-nonsense. Payment is cash only, reservations are taken only for groups of eight or more, and the joint gets busy on weekends and before Bulls and Blackhawks games at nearby United Center.
If you like Tufano’s you might also want to check out other Italian neighborhood classics, Club Lago (River North), Mart Anthony’s (West Town) and the Italian Village (Loop). Tufano’s closes around 10pm on most nights so head to nearby Hawkeye’s Bar & Grill, Drum & Monkey or Jay’s for a nightcap afterwards. For more information, you’ll have to call as Tufano’s does not have a website.