HYDE PARK — Piccolo Mondo is expanding beyond its Italian fare to offer a taste of the owner’s youth, Argentine pastries.
On Aug. 5, the Hyde Park Italian restaurant will close for remodeling, and is expected to reopen on Aug. 19 with cases of Argentine croissants, cakes and alfajor, a rich caramel sweet between two light buttery cakes.
“People ask, ‘Is this French?’” said owner Norberto Zas, who grew up eating the sweet with his Spanish grandparents in Buenos Aires.
Zas said that the pastries of his native Argentina are a mix of the cultures that settled there. His boyhood home was a four-flat in Buenos Aires with a Ukrainian family living above his Spanish family, living above a Jewish family, living above a French family.
“We all played together,” Zas said, adding that there are no bakeries in Chicago offering the Argentine treats.
He said the cultures all play together to create the unique alfajor caramel filling.
“Sweet caramel was invented in Argentina,” Zas said. “It’s thick, it’s milky.”
The alfajor will be one of 40 pastries offered with a classic Argentine espresso or cappuccino at the restaurant, 1642 E. 56th St.
Zas and pastry chef Diego Cureses have tested out the sweets during the restaurant's more than 200 catering events each year and decided they need a permanent home in Hyde Park.
Zas and Cureses made more than 4,000 pastries recently for a University of Chicago event attended by about 400 guests.
“They ate everything — so that’s 10 pieces per person — and they loved it,” Zas said.
Zas said the experiment was a success and he decided to team up with Cureses to replace Piccolo Mondo's deli offerings with sweet cakes.
When the restaurant closes on Aug. 5, he will bring in tables and granite countertops to offer the extra-sweet Argentine croissants that Zas compared to flaky pastries of German immigrants to Argentina.
“Germans, everything they do is heavy,” Zas said, adding that the Argentine influence lightened the pastry to balance it with the French croissant.
After it reopens, Piccolo Mondo will continue to offer the Italian pasta and Spanish tapas dishes that have made it a Hyde Park staple for 25 years.