AVONDALE — Like the Spanish siesta, afternoon naps in Italy are a beloved tradition — one that Rachel De Marte said her husband abides by with fervor.
Chef James De Marte picked up his affection for the so-called pisolino during his 10 years living as a chef in Italy. Now, he brings the essence of that experience to Pisolino Caffe, which opened in November after a weeklong soft opening at 2755 W. Belmont Ave.
The Italian cafe replaces Pork Shoppe, which closed in July to rededicate focus to its Andersonville location. The locally farmed barbecue restaurant got its start in 2010 in Avondale before adding the second location in April 2015.
The De Martes started renovations for Pisolino in September, taking care to distinguish their cafe from the barbecue joint it was replacing, Rachel De Marte said.
"Barbecue joints can get away with a lot, be grungy and rustic and all these things other places could never be," she said. "And we wanted to make it look like us, like an Italian, residential place, but all on a very precise budget."
The result was a modern little cafe with cool gray and smoky blue walls decorated with ornate gold mirrors, hanging oversized light bulbs and bright oak-colored furniture.
Pisolino is open for breakfast 8:30-11 a.m. Tuesdays-Fridays and 9-11 a.m. Saturdays, after which lunch is served until 2:30 p.m. Last week, it began dinner service from 5-9 p.m.
From the kitchen, the Chicago-born chef De Marte serves up pasta, pizza and paninis for lunch and dinner, plus a rotating selection of pastries for breakfast.
The menu certainly draws from her husband's years of cooking in Italy, but veers away from the fine dining, Michelin-starred menus of his past, Rachel De Marte said.
"We wanted to listen to the neighborhood and offer the type of service people are looking for," she said.
Salads are $6-$11 and include a friselle salad, made with a dry, bagel-shaped Italian bread and topped with Tuscan fennel salami, anchovy, roasted pepper and provolone.
Pasta offerings range from a simple rigatoni covered with savory neckbone ragu and hard Italian pecorino cheese ($13) to the orecchiette with spicy sausage, broccoli raab, and a garlic and shallot confit ($14).
Rachel De Marte, who works as an event planner, said she was particularly excited for customers to try her husband's classic Italian pizzas, with five selections to choose from. All are fasioned in the pugliese style, which typically features tomatoes, onions, mozzarella and pecorino cheese.
At Pisolino, diners will likely be familiar with the margherita pizza for $13, while giardiniera fans should check out the $15 nipote pizza, which is also topped with sausage and wild mushrooms.
Rachel and James De Marte opened their first restaurant, Pisolino Caffe, after years of consulting with other businesses. [Provided/Rachel De Marte]
Chicken and eggplant parmesan are two panini choices, along with a meatball sandwich and a proscuitto crudo. All are $9-$10. The restaurant also offers two desserts: a tiramisu and a butterscotch budino, or pudding.
The menu is meant to be affordable, Rachel De Marte said. Pisolino also offers a full menu of espresso drinks and a list of Italian wines her sommelier-trained husband selected.
The wines will be served by the cortino, which is almost twice the size of a typical glass yet will still cost about $9-$10, she said.
"He has hand-picked a list of very affordable, great Italian wines," she said. "So you're really getting almost two full pours for the price of one glass in River North."
Eventually, they hope to also serve afternoon cicchetti, small-plated snacks similar to Spanish tapas, along with Italian spritzes — afternoon treats that Rachel De Marte said Chicago lacks.
Pisolino is the first restaurant the De Martes are opening themselves after years of consulting and catering work on other projects. The couple also decided to forgo other investors or partners, preferring to create something that was purely theirs.
As for the location, the 40-seat restaurant was the perfect size for their cozy cafe, Rachel De Marte said. After checking out dozens of potential storefronts, the Old Irving Park couple got a late-night call from an acquaintance who suggested they scoop up the old Pork Shoppe as quickly as possible.
For now, the De Martes are content with one location, although they're open to the idea of opening additional Pisolinos in the future.
"I always laugh when I see other venues open a second [location] before their first is really good, and I can't figure out why you would do that," Rachel De Marte said. "Talk about one more, talk about 10 more, but this has to be perfect first."
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