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Counter Culture: Best Panini in Town? 

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Vella Cafe

1912 N. Western

773-489-7777

For the past few years Sara Voden and Melissa Yen have been selling what may be the finest sandwiches in Chicago from a small patch of grass in Lincoln Park. Their grill at the Green City Market produced wondrous items like a grilled Moroccan chicken panini and the French Toast, whose name is a total undersell: it's Red Hen country white stuffed with honey-orange cream cheese, baked in a custard, and pressed on a panini grill. Last week Voden and Yen took their operation indoors, opening Vella Cafe, a breakfast-and-lunch storefront under the Blue Line stop at Western. Named after Voden's old cat, it has a roof and seats and everything.

The outstanding paninis are still on offer, including a frittata panini that's among the best egg sandwiches I've ever had, but the menu has been expanded to include house-made pastries, crepes, soups, and salads. At the cafe's inaugural Sunday brunch a continuous line circled lazily through the restaurant--a roomy, colorful, high-ceilinged space--and around the tables Voden and Yen built themselves. The counter was designed and constructed by Yen's husband. Friends helped paint. The ceiling globes and glass pastry platters were thrifted. "There's no frills," says Voden. "Everything is patched together."

When Voden and Yen first saw the newly built storefront, a year ago, when it was still concrete and dust, they'd already had one false start. The year before they'd signed a lease on a storefront on North Damen, just south of Argyle, only to discover that the space a few doors down had been rented to another breakfast-and-lunch spot, Over Easy. Reluctant about the competition, they persuaded James Ventrella of Ventrella's Caffeto take over their rent.

After looking in Uptown, Edgewater, Roscoe Village, and anywhere else they thought they could afford, they beat out Starbucks and a couple banks--businesses with credit history--for the single-floor structure directly beneath the el stop. There are "no names, no big backers, just the two of us," Voden says. But their landlords, the owners of the Green Eye Lounge, just around the corner, as well as Lemmings and Underbar, wanted a local business in the spot.

Voden, who grew up in Milwaukee, moved to Chicago about 15 years ago and began baking at the Dellwood Pickle (now closed) in Andersonville. After starting classes at Kendall College she was recruited to be the assistant to the pastry chef at Marche and then became the pastry chef herself. She burned out after a few years and went to work at Rita's Catering, a job she just left. Yen, who's from the suburbs, spent many years as a waitress in the city, helping to open Brasserie Jo and Le Colonial. Until recently she worked at Milk and Honey, the Wicker Park breakfast-and-lunch spot, which influenced the feel and design of Vella Cafe, including the counter service.

When Voden and Yen were introduced through a mutual friend about three years ago, they were both looking for their own business. "I was crepe obsessed and I wanted to do a stand," Yen says. "I thought I was going to do it myself, which would have been so stupid. And Sara wanted to do a panini stand."

Since Green City already had a crepe stand, they went with paninis (though they did offer the occasional crepe brunch at the shared space Kitchen Chicago, where they were doing their prep cooking). "The market was a great testing ground for our relationships and our recipes," Voden says. Yen adds, "You see so many businesses--they open a restaurant and six months later a partner splits."

The pair signed the lease on Western thinking that between loans from family and friends and their savings from the market, they'd have enough money to cover costs. They still needed a couple additional loans. "We are stretched to the limit," Voden says. "It's the stuff you don't think of," says Yen. "We had a column for the stuff we didn't think of and that number was way off."

Admittedly, there was a lot to think of. Voden recently saw a photograph of the unfinished original space. "I was shocked," she says. "Looking back on it, I couldn't believe that we even started it." --Nicholas Day

For more on restaurants, see our blog The Food Chain at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): At Vella Cafe, under the Western Blue Line stop: owners Sara Voden and Melissa Yen, Mexican shortbread cookies, and a Caesar salad.

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