According to Ken Albala’s Pancake: A Global History, the very first pancake recipe, recorded in the Middle Ages, was in fact a French crepe, then called a “crespe.” “We must surmise that the medieval crepes,” he writes, “being called crisps, were supposed to be crisp, to some degree.”
Ezat Nada, 34, understands this intuitively. At Prince Creperie Cafe, his three-week-old restaurant in Albany Park, he takes pains to ensure that his crepes aren’t spongy and flabby, lest their fillings disintegrate them like melting “ice cream.” The 11 savory crepes on his menu—mostly cheese-and-vegetable-based with supplementary meat options—are almost paper thin and impressively crispy, unlike the squishy, leaden flapjacks that often pass for French crepes in this town. The 11 sweet crepes he offers are a slightly different story. They’re just as thin, but he cooks them with a little less butter and they diaphanously envelop the fresh and preserved fruits, nuts, and caramels, syrups, and spreads bundled inside.
So far those subtleties seem to be lost on the denizens of the neighborhood. “Somebody come and tell me, ‘Give me two tacos,'” he says. The small space across from the Kedzie Brown Line stop and hard by the tracks seems cursed. It has seen two coffee shops and one Mexican snack bar come and go in as many years. But Nada says the rent was right, and in a neighborhood with no shortage of taquerias and shawarma joints, he has a lock on crepes.
Fourteen years ago he left his home near Alexandria, Egypt, and went to Paris to study physical therapy. To support himself he worked in a series of French and Italian restaurants as a commis. “Our life is in restaurants,” he says of himself and his friends. “We have experience. I learn on the job. I didn’t know anything. I start just cleaning vegetables.”
After graduating, he and a friend bought a small creperie in the Bastille neighborhood. The place was small, with a high-turnover trade in hungry tourists, and they made good money. After four years they sold out and opened a shawarma and kebab joint in Pigalle. Again, business boomed, and they sold it in order to open a construction company and a hookah lounge.
In 2006 Nada planned to return to school to get his chiropractor’s license but first was required to take a remedial French class at the Sorbonne. He didn’t plan on meeting 20-year-old Carmine Montanti, a Loyola language student spending her senior year in Paris.
They quickly became a couple and married after she graduated a few months later. They spent their summers in Egypt until she returned stateside to finish her master’s last year. Nada put his affairs in order, selling off his shares in the businesses, his house, and car, and joined her in June to look for a spot to open a new creperie. Carmine, now teaching French and Spanish at DeVry Advantage Academy High School, helped him navigate the bureaucratic labyrinth of opening a restaurant in Chicago. On the sign in the window is the motto all because two people fell in love.
He’s had a bit of a difficult time getting used to the pace. “Here, nobody like to talk with anybody,” he says. “The people just work, work, work. It’s different life for me, really.” Along with that he brings with him a particularly Gallic disdain for American fast food, as symbolized by the huge portions of frozen mass-produced gyros and french fries he sees all around him. And don’t get him started on microwaves: “I don’t use microwave in my kitchen,” he says. “I don’t like it because I think that sometimes the microwave has killed the bad bacterias and the good bacterias.”
He views his salads and crepes as a rare alternative in the neighborhood, building each one in a precise order, a la minute. His Crepe Pigalle is a bittersweet funk of hot caramelized dried figs sauteed in butter and combined with gooey hot Brie and peppery arugula. His Crepe Concord enfolds warm slivers of fresh mango sauteed in freshly grated ginger chutney with raisins and sunflower seeds.
Batter is made twice daily. It’s simple: three parts whole-wheat flour to one part white, plus eggs, sugar, milk, and a very small dose of lemon zest and vanilla. “If you don’t put lemon and vanilla you can smell eggs, like we make omelet,” he says. A large selection of coffee drinks, teas, and smoothies rounds things out—on a recent afternoon he experimented, bringing out affogato for his lunchtime customers.
He’s had to make adjustments. He pulled a Brie, roasted garlic, and escargot crepe off the menu due to lack of interest. Same goes for the imported foie gras terrine. And the crepes themselves are larger than those he was making back in Bastille—a concession to American appetites.
He admits his crepes are a bit of a hard sell to his fellow Arabs in the neighborhood, who he maintains are mostly interested in shawarma, kebabs, and rice. “I am Arabic, but I tell you the Arabic people do not worry about cholesterol or heart attacks,” he says. “They do not care about this. They want to live today, and maybe die tomorrow, no problem.”
But he’s undaunted: “I picked this place. There is no business like it in the area.”