Convito Café & Market: 35 Years of Our Love Affair with Italy

 

Inspired by passion and immersion in everything Italian, I launched Convito in 1980 along with my two mentors Milanese residents Paolo Volpara and Wanda Bottino. It seems like only yesterday! But when I think of what was going on in Chicago in 1980 with “take-away” food, Italian products and Italian wine and even Italian restaurants, it seems like another century!

with my two Milanese partners, Wanda Bottino and Paolo Volpara in our first shop in 1980

In 1980 with my two Milanese partners, Wanda Bottino and Paolo Volpara

The great Italian explosion had yet to make its way to the Midwest. In those dark ages of gastronomic exploration, many quality Italian products were yet to be discovered. Our original Convito staff – comprised mostly of good friends who were also good cooks – helped customers in that discovery process answering a myriad of questions like:

Q: What are those wrinkly red things in my salad?
A: They are sun-dried tomatoes (and in ten years you’ll be sick of seeing them in everything from pasta to salads to chip dip!).

Q: I thought you said you only carried Italian wine yet none of the bottles on your shelf are enclosed in woven baskets.
A: We carry wines from all over Italy, not just Chianti (and even our Chianti’s aren’t in baskets!)

Q: How is something “extra” virginal?!“
A: “Extra Virgin” olive oil is oil that is produced by a simple pressing of olives without added chemicals or cooking. It is the purest form of olive oil.

 

Janet alms, me, Colleen Houlahan (manager and partner), partner Wanda Bottino and Mary Nahser

Janet Alms, Nancy, Colleen Houlahan (manager and partner), partner Wanda Bottino and Mary Nahser

“Prepared foods” in the early eighties were either mayonnaise-soaked potato salad or wilted coleslaw picked up at the local supermarket. We offered an array of soups, sauces, salads and antipasti bringing customers from all over the Chicago area. Pasta Fresca was made right in front of our customer’s eyes.

Janet Alms, Wanda Bottino and me making fresh pasta

Janet Alms, Wanda Bottino and Nancy making fresh pasta

We were a revelation to many, though some friends remained skeptics. One commented, “Isn’t opening an Italian specialty market like a doctor specializing in knee cap surgery?” Though I had great faith in our mission, I have to admit, comments like that sometimes made me wonder whether I was crazy to be undertaking such a venture.

It turns out we were on to something. 35 year later sun-dried tomatoes can be found everywhere, Italian wine has the respect it deserves, Extra Virgin Olive Oil is a valued commodity and fresh pasta is no longer an oddity. Along the way Convito has adapted and changed priorities. We have continued to grow our award winning prepared foods selection and added scores of soups and sauces; we expanded our grocery department to include artisanal and specialty products not only from Italy but also from America and countries around the globe; we added an outside café. For 35 years we have been changing and adapting, adding and subtracting. Change is good for the soul. It has kept Convito relevant!

 

Celebrating 35 years has made me reflect on the many people who have been important building blocks on this journey. There are too many to mention in one blog, so I chose to remember the ones who were there at the very beginning of our journey:

Partners

Milanese residents Paolo Volpara (original partner until 1986) and his mother, Wanda Bottino. They still remain the essence of Convito. Milan is where it all began for me – where I learned about regional Italy – traveling with Paolo to all 20 regions and cooking the dishes of each region with Wanda.

Paolo and I in Lago Maggiore where we officially formed our partnership or Lazio – together in front of a lake – I think I like this one best

Paolo and Nancy at a lake in Lazio outside of Rome the first year of our partnership

CH29-35th-160211-sec_13_wanda_kitchen-2

Wanda and Nancy cooking in her Milanese kitchen

Colleen Houlahan (until 1990) GM in charge of operations and personnel.

Colleen Houlahan and me at our opening

Colleen Houlahan and Nancy at our opening

Candace Barocci Warner – 9 when I opened, GM in 1996, joined me as partner in 2008. She has become the essence of Convito 2016. “We cannot rest on our laurels,” says Candace. “ We need to constantly update and change with the times.”

Candace in High School working at Convito after school

Candace in High School working at Convito after school

Candace Warner

Candace Warner as GM and partner

Mentors

Leslee Reis – dear friend, owner of acclaimed restaurant Café Provencal who advised me on all things culinary.

Leslee and I

Leslee and Nancy

Maury Ross, president of the Wine House at Union Liquor who became my trusted wine advisor.

Maury and I

Maury and Nancy

Essential in my early journey

Violet Caldarelli – first Convito chef, catering director and master of customer service.

Violet Calderelli

Violet Calderelli

Karen Brussat Butler – sister and exceptional water colorist who provided the “Convito look”.

Karen Butler

Karen Brussat Butler

 

My original partner and dear friend, Paolo Volpara now lives in Turkey. He sent us congratulations and encouraging words for our anniversary celebration:

“Convito is alive because it is tasty, spicy, tender, sweet, robust and robust – but never flat. It has never been driven by fashion. It was Italian and European before it was fashionable to be so. Convito was – and is – curious at the table – and in life! That is why I believe Convito is still here!”

Trenta cinque e un centinaio di più

(Thirty five and a hundred more)

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About Nancy Brussat

I am the owner of an Italian café and market in Wilmette, Illinois, a suburb on the north side of Chicago.  The original Convito Italiano was opened in 1980.  It included a deli, bakery, prepared foods, groceries and wine.  Today it is renamed Convito Café & Market and has expanded to include an 80 seat restaurant.   In preparation for launching my business I wanted to learn as much as possible about the food, the wine and the culture of this country I so came to love. I had the good fortune to have extraordinary teachers, Milanese residents and future partners Paolo Volpara and his mother Wanda Bottino.  During my frequent travels from 1979 to 1986 I was able to cook with Wanda in her small Milanese kitchen during the week then travel to different regions with Paolo on the weekends. I continue visiting Italy to this day but this was my time of total Italian immersion.   It was the beginning of an adventure that carried me to the four corners of Italy and every region in-between.  It was also the beginning of another kind of journey – a personal one that opened up possibilities I never considered or knew existed.  It was a heady time for a girl brought up in the fifties.    
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One Response to Convito Café & Market: 35 Years of Our Love Affair with Italy

  1. katherine catalano says:

    This time I have to tag along on Paolo’s comment about the enduring appeal of Convito. Yes, the restaurant epitomizes the “curious at the table” element which is so attractive to diners–the pleasant surprises of the traditional and experimental. It is, of course, the wine, the care in preparation and presentation of the food, and the ambient balance of the homey and the elegant in the physical space. But ultimately it is the ineffable magic of Nancy herself which brings it all together, always fresh, always in bloom. She is, as Dylan Thomas says in one of his most eloquent poems: “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.”

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