In Print: inside a legendary Italian kitchen. | Calendar | Chicago Reader

In Print: inside a legendary Italian kitchen. 

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Last Thanksgiving a gift arrived that evoked warm memories.

It was a cookbook.

A Pinch of This and a Pinch of That: The Cooking Treasures of Our Fairytale Italian Restaurant is a self-published "story-cookbook" by Salvino and Margo Madonna, owners of Mama Lena's Italian Kitchen, a once-legendary restaurant on Chicago Avenue. The book recalls the lives of Mama Lena and Papa Frank Madonna, and how in 1967 their son Salvino went into business with his mother.

The youngest of nine children, Salvino grew up in the kitchen, learning at an early age to prepare food the Sicilian way. His mother loved to cook, even when that meant baking ten loaves of bread every other day. "I remember how I loved to watch her and play at doing just the same as she did," Salvino says. "Little did mama and I know...we were preparing for the future."

The restaurant began as a lunch spot in the L-shaped hallway of a building at 24 E. Chicago. "We had a few rough months in the beginning," Salvino reflects. But word of mouth quickly spread, and soon their restaurant was transformed into a popular dinner place (a decade later it moved a half block east into the ground floor of a brownstone). Each night's meal was the product of daylong preparations in the kitchen.

The place attracted celebrities like Joe DiMaggio, Joan Sutherland, and Jimmy Durante (a favorite dinner companion of Judge Abraham Lincoln Marovitz), and reservations became a necessity (in his foreword to the book, Roy Leonard recalls waiting three weeks for a table). Mama Lena's was intimate, accommodating only 30 to 40 diners each seating. There were two seatings every night--one at 6, another at 8:30. After Mama retired in 1975, Salvino and his wife, Margo, carried on the tradition. The evening would always start with Salvino--a born entertainer--standing before the crowd, informing guests what to expect (one of his favorite bits involved stuffing a cannoli onstage). Then Margo would bring out the first of five courses. Guests were encouraged to eat as much as they pleased--seconds were yours for the asking.

Mama Lena's served its last meal in 1981, and Salvino and Margo Madonna went into the specialty catering business. "The people who came to the restaurant ended up moving all over the country," Salvino says. "They'd fly us in for parties--Scottsdale, Las Vegas, Palm Beach." A few years ago Margo hit on the idea for the cookbook, and the resulting 273 pages document the dishes served at Mama Lena's. Each recipe carefully guides users through the preparation process--especially important since both mama and her son learned to cook by oral instruction (ingredients are usually measured in pinches). Most are surprisingly easy to master, from the simplest antipasto salad to the most complex and delicately seasoned main dishes, sauces, and desserts.

Salvino credits Margo with pulling off the venture. Their book is already in area bookstores, and an appearance at last weekend's BookExpo America made Salvino especially excited. "We had so many people at our booth it's unbelievable," he says. "What do I know about book publishing? I'm a chef!" It may only be the beginning: a line of Mama Lena's seasonings is due in supermarkets this summer.

Salvino and Margo Madonna will make two appearances this Sunday on North Michigan Avenue. From 10 to 11 AM, they'll be at the Signature Room on the 95th floor of the John Hancock Center; brunch will feature the Madonnas' recipe for sausage and brown sugar peppers with a cream sherry sauce (the cost for brunch is $35.95 per person; call 312-787-9596 for reservations). Then from noon to 3 PM, they'll be at Borders Books & Music at 830 N. Michigan; the first 150 people will get a free sample of the sausage dish (call 312-573-0564). For more information, you can look up the Madonnas' Web site: mamalenas.com.

--Beth Fletcher McEachern

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.

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