Author's Note: I originally wrote this piece for Fooditor.com. Sadly in the time leading up to publication another outlet published virtually the same story. The very talented editor at Fooditor, Mike Gebert, and I made the decision not to run what would look like a "Me too!" piece. I worked very hard on this and couldn't bare the thought of it going unpublished. So here's my take on a story you may have already read.)
One of Chicago’s greatest wine secrets is hidden right in plain sight.
The small building at 71 W. Monroe is dwarfed by the surrounding high-rises. Upon entering you're faced with a long, straight, marble-lined staircase ascending to the second floor. When you reach the summit of your climb you enter the reception area of “The Village,” one of the three restaurants which makes up The Italian Village. The walls are lined with black and white autographed photos of various celebrities and dignitaries who have dined here over its 90 year history.
I'm greeted by Jared Gelband, sommelier of The Italian Village. We stroll into the bar and chat for a bit. Beneath strands of twinkling lights and walls painted to emulate a starry Mediterranean night, you feel as if you have been transported back in time to a bygone era. Maybe it's the time of the rat pack, or perhaps a darker time when, to get a proper drink in a joint, the barman would have to head back through a warren of small rooms located behind the elegantly curved bar to get the hooch. One thing is certain, this isn't the design of some newly opened hot spot. This is a true, old school, classic joint, tuxedo clad maître d' and all.
It's here where Gelband describes the Italian Village and his role. “This is actually three separate restaurants under one roof; each with its own chef.” On top is The Village, featuring Northern Italian and Italian American specialties. On the first floor is Vivere, offering creative contemporary Italian cuisine, and on the lower level is La Cantina, with a menu of steaks, chops and classic dishes from The Village. The three restaurants are separate, yet there's one important detail that ties them together. “One wine list serves all three restaurants,” says Gelband. While The Village is known for its classic dishes, like the pillow-like spinach and ricotta agnolotti with delicate tomato basil sauce, it's the wine list that I'm here to learn about.
To get a better feel for the role wine plays at The Italian Village, Gelband takes me up to the wine cellar. Wait, what? Up? Because of the way the building was constructed, the only space for a wine “cellar” was on the top floor of the four-story building. This is why the wine storage area at The Italian Village now bears the name “The Cellar in the Sky.”
Gelband leads me through a discreet door in the bar and we ascend a few more steps. He explains, “It’s a lot of stairs. When I have to get a bottle of wine for Vivere [on the building’s first floor] or Cantina [on the lower level] I have to do a lot of stairs. But I eat a lot of Italian food so it’s a good workout during work.”
We pass through a utilitarian employee locker room and Gelband produces the key to his domain. As soon as he opens the door I feel a blast of cold air. We enter 'The Cellar in the Sky' and head up even more stairs. The sound of the cooling system hums while struggling to keep up with the heat of summer. “We keep the cellar in the sky between 57 and 60 degrees, 65 to 70 percent humidity,” he tells me. The low-ceilinged room is filled with a maze of wood shelves, which hold wines not only from all of Italy's classic growing regions, but from around the globe. Pardon my inner wine geek for a moment. My mouth waters just looking at amazing bottle after amazing bottle. '82 Sassicia, 90's DRC, classic after classic.
How is it that a restaurant that opened during prohibition came to have such a deep connection to wine and whose idea was it to develop such a special wine list?
“My uncle loved the restaurant but his passion was for hospitality and schmoozing with people,” says Gina Capitanini, now president of the restaurant company and third generation of the family in the business. One day, the story goes, her uncle, second generation family member in the restaurant, Ray Capitanini, was chatting with his friend, who was a wine salesman. She continues, “It was Tom Abruzzini who convinced him he needed to do something more with the wine list.”
Ray and Tom got to talking about wines from Italy and the vast choices they offer the consumer. This was at a time when wine lists were dominated by French wines. Italian selections, if any, would only include a simple Chianti, likely in a fiasco bottle, maybe a pinot grigio and perhaps a Barolo. But, imagine if the Village offered guests a wide range of great wines from Italy and around the globe?
She goes on, “They got together and tasted like 500 wines over two or three days and my uncle bought everything he loved.”
And the rest, as they say, is history.
While a recent article in a national publication states that the first regional Italian wine list in the country was formed at Babbo in 1998, the overlooked fact is that The Italian Village has had a dynamic one since the early 1970's.
Wine's Place in the Hospitality The Italian Village is Known For
Now, wine might not be at the top of your mind when choosing a place to dine, but it can add a lot to the dining experience. This is just one reason places all over Chicago offer guests superb wine lists. In fact, there are so many great lists in town that it can be argued that diners have never had a better selection of wines in restaurants than they do today. There are deep lists at places like Formento’s, or regionally focused lists like the one featuring wines from the Loire at the super-hot Proxi. Today one fact is certain, if there’s a style of wine you like, you can find it at a restaurant somewhere in Chicago.
Deep and intriguing wine lists were once typically the sole domain of ultra-fine dining spots like Le Francais or Ambria. But in the early 1970’s that conversation between wine lovers Ray and Tom quietly changed all of that.
The list Ray developed quickly became a classic. So much so that when the Wine Spectator introduced its “Grand Award” for restaurant wine lists, The Italian Village became the first Chicago restaurant to win top honors. Gelband says, “Today 'The Cellar in the Sky' has over 1200 selections and a total of over 20,000 bottles.” But size isn’t everything.
The wine list here isn’t just a dusty old book (and it is indeed a book) full of expensive wine. Now, while the list does have some pricey selections, good hospitality demands that it offers something for anyone wanting wine. And this list does. There are plenty of good value, lower priced choices. This hospitality goes beyond the wine selections but to its service as well. The way the entire staff thinks about the wine program is that it is a living, breathing, and growing part of The Italian Village. And for those select few who have served as sommelier of The Cellar in the Sky, Gina Capitanini says, “Each sommelier, when they leave, they say it’s like losing a child.”
Even though Gelband is early in his tenure here, this heritage isn’t lost on him. “The reason this list is so great isn’t because of me, but because of what the wine directors before me had put into it. So, it’s my duty to do my part for the time that I’m here.”
Exactly how does he do this? When asked, Gelband turns to his desk and grabs an old wine list. “Here’s a list from 23 years ago, I use it to help decide what direction I want to go with it today, so we can hold onto the integrity of what the somms before me have built.” In doing so he stays true to Ray’s tradition. But that doesn’t mean his hands are tied from leaving his own mark on the list. “I want to put my own touch on it by doing things like building our Sicilian wine collection up. Like Frank Cornilliessen,” the hip natural wine producer who’s doing the stuff all the cool kids are drinking.
One issue diners often face when looking at a wine list is that the only selections offered are current vintages. With some types of wine, the current vintage is fine. But when dealing with wines from growing areas like Bordeaux, Burgundy, Napa, or Barolo, you really want wine with a bit of age on it. Sadly, that’s too big of a challenge for many restaurants which often don’t have the time to invest in aging wines. Because of the pressure of low margins restaurateurs are often forced to sell wines far younger than their peak drinking windows.
Luckily for The Italian Village the age and size of the “cellar” has allowed for a list full of mature and older vintages. “There are wines on the list that you can’t even buy any more,” explains Capitanini.
Gelband is working on maintaining The Italian Village’s collection of mature vintages. Again, referring to an older wine list he says, “I use these lists to go back and try to rebuild it to what it was. ‘68 through ‘79 Monsanto Il Poggio, the single vineyard Chianti. For instance, we have the ‘71 for $210 per bottle and I was able to procure five more bottles of the ‘68 from the vineyard that has been recorked and is in perfect condition. We were the first in Chicago to bring this in.”
Now sure, given the right amount of time and money anyone can put together such a selection. And you can find dribs and drabs of this sort of list around town. But take a look at one important detail; pricing. As much as somms deny it, the three and four times markup is alive and well, and living on Chicago area wine lists. But at The Italian Village, pricing is just one part of the hospitality that has distinguished them for generations. And pricing is something that Gelband pays attention to, “I talked to Ray, I’m like, these prices are nuts. But they bought this stuff so long ago and want people to enjoy the wines for a reasonable price. That’s just the kind of guys that they are. Four times wholesale isn’t unusual at some places. Four times! I’ve never put a wine on this list at that kind of markup. And I won’t ever do it because it’s not appropriate for wine by the bottle.”
Much of the older vintage wine here was purchased at release. While these wines have risen in price on the list as they age, they're still offered at what could be considered outstanding prices. Often below the secondary market retail price. “Looking back at this list from 23 years ago, the ‘75 Petrus was on it for $350 back then. I sold that very same bottle recently to a regular for $1800 (Average retail about $2500). Ray said to me, ‘I heard you sold my Petrus, I think I bought that for $175 30 years ago.’ So, prices have been raised, but they’re still appropriate and priced to sell.”
Of course, the age of the older stuff in their cellar is something that would make any somm proud. But because of the proliferation of fake older vintage classics flooding today’s wine market the buyer of such wines should be wary. At The Italian Village that concern is alleviated as Gelband boasts, “One thing about this cellar is that the old stuff sitting here has been around since we bought it and hasn’t moved, so you can be sure of authenticity. I’ve got stuff going back to the 60’s like the ’61 Lynch Bages, tons of stuff from the 80’s. We’ve got vintages of Sassicia going back to 1982.” If you're looking to score a relative deal on classic wine The Italian Village is a place to hunt.
Another key to the hospitality the wine program at the Italian Village offers is that there’s something there for everyone. It’s a whole lot deeper than old high dollar classics, or nerdy new stuff. Gelband wants to be sure he has something for anyone. “I love turning people onto new stuff that is in the neighborhood of what they like already. So, for instance, if someone is a Burgundy drinker I might recommend a Barbaresco. If you’re a Bordeaux drinker were going to Brunello. And if you’ve had that stuff we might go to Sicilian stuff. And I’ll gauge what they like in order to make a recommendation. But always at a reasonable price.”
Offering guests what they want at a fair price is the kind of hospitality that the Italian Village is known for. It comes from the top and it’s one that president Gina Capitanini plans to maintain. She explains, “In the future, we plan to continue this tradition,' she says beaming with the pride only generations of commitment can produce. “We’re celebrating 90 years this year and we’re looking forward to celebrating 100 with the next generation.”