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!
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.
“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.
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:
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.
Colleen Houlahan (until 1990) GM in charge of operations and personnel.
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.”
Leslee Reis – dear friend, owner of acclaimed restaurant Café Provencal who advised me on all things culinary.
Maury Ross, president of the Wine House at Union Liquor who became my trusted wine advisor.
Essential in my early journey
Violet Caldarelli – first Convito chef, catering director and master of customer service.
Karen Brussat Butler – sister and exceptional water colorist who provided the “Convito look”.
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)