Arancini from Sfera Sicilian Street Food
“Our food philosophy is not trying to cook like you would in Sicily but cook like a Sicilian would in Chicago.” Credit: Kristen Mendiola

In the Before Times, Daniela Vitale and Steven Jarczyk made a name for themselves selling cheesy, gooey, deep-fried rice balls at farmers’ markets.

Like many nimble food businesses, their Sfera Sicilian Street Food pivoted during the pandemic, jarring sauces and delivering their arancini chilled and ready to reheat at home. In October 2020, things took another turn when they moved into Avondale’s ghost kitchen and introduced an even more obscure Sicilian snack: scaccia, aka lasagna bread. Native to the southern town of Ragusa, it’s a thinly rolled pizza, folded upon itself in multiples, the pasta-like interior layers sheltering strata of marinara and mozzarella, mined with sausage, mushrooms, or roasted vegetables.

It was easily one of the best things I ate that year, and in some respects the partners really came into their own with foods like this in the 200 square feet they had to work with in the virtual restaurant hub, developing recipes for even more rare and unusual (for the midwest) island street food that they featured at catering events: pane panelle, sfincione, and a “Chicago-style” muffuletta, the iconic sandwich whose ancestral origins begin not in New Orleans but in Sicily.

The good news is that these items will be featured daily at their new brick-and-mortar space in Edgewater opening at 5759 N. Broadway, a few blocks from Kathy Osterman Beach. The bad news is the scaccia will not survive Sfera’s escape from the ghost kitchen—at least not as an everyday indulgence. “Just because of labor,” says Jarczyk. “They take almost 30 minutes to bake. It’s a long process, and we don’t have the seating that would let that be a normal menu item.”

It’ll still appear for specials and special orders, and at least there should be some consolation that Sfera’s new spot will likely be the only place in the city you can get pane panelle, a crispy chickpea fritter sandwich, here served with roasted red peppers and lemon caper vegan aioli.

The pecorino breadcrumb-topped, semolina-crusted sfincione is an exciting development too: the precursor to Italian American focaccia-based Sicilian pizza. And they make the muffuletta their own with a giardiniera base to the olive salad. Other sandwiches—pane cunzato, or “fixed bread”—are still in development.

Both the traditional and off-script arancini are the focus, of course. The classic core of saffron-scented beef ragu and sweet peas, sharing real estate with the ham and bacon “breakfast” arancini, and in the summer the roasted corn and poblano arancini—among some half dozen traditional and novel varieties in their repertoire.

“Italians tend to cook very strict—like, ‘This is how grandma did it and how you always do it,’” says Jarczyk. “Our food philosophy is not trying to cook like you would in Sicily but cook like a Sicilian would in Chicago.”

Daniela Vitale and Steven Jarczyk made a name for themselves with signature arancini. Credit: Kristen Mendiola

One thing that will lean more old world: the new space will feature counter service only—breakfast and lunch at first—with minimal seating but plenty of window space to stand and eat a pane cunzato or cannoli on the fly, “the way they do in Italia,” says Vitale. Her first language was Sicilian-Italian growing up in the latter-day Little Italy around Harlem and Irving Park, and she spent her teenage summers in Sicily. “I ate a lot and went to the beach a lot,” she says. She and Jarczyk are counting on a lot of beach traffic coming through for picnic supplies.

Another few things they’re looking forward to is cooking in a kitchen with some room to breathe, and being able to engage in the face-to-face art of hospitality. As far as they’ve come in three years, they don’t give much credit for their endurance to the ghost kitchen they left last fall. Contrary to the idea that they’re an incubator for big ideas, “the ghost kitchen concept for the most part is a graveyard of small business dreams,” says Jarczyk. “They’ll promise you the world and then absolutely deliver nothing for an incredible price. We are in the hospitality business, and when you’re not given the opportunity to show hospitality as a new business, that’s really hard.”

The front-facing Sfera will open this spring, hopefully “sooner rather than later,” says Jarczyk, allowing that one thing that never changes is that, on the city’s typical permitting timetable, one never knows.

Sfera Sicilian Street Food
5759 N. Broadway (Coming in spring 2022)
sferachicago.com
@sferachicago