Sylvia Guido describes herself as a “restaurant nomad.” At 67, after nearly 50 years in the business, the owner of Bella Domani in Lincoln Square is operating her seventh food-related enterprise. She launched her first, a small grocery store in Cicero, at age 19. Both of her parents were Italian immigrants–her mother from Palermo and her father from Foggia, near “the heel of the boot.” Guido took what she’d learned in her family kitchen and began to supplement the packaged products she sold in her store with fresh food like pastas and sausages.

In 1974, by then married to Simon Peacock and raising four children, Guido moved her household to the west coast to be closer to her husband’s family. She found a space for sale in downtown Los Angeles, and restaurant number one, the Friendly Cafe and Coachroom, was born. In 1978 the family moved back to Chicago, where Guido and Peacock opened Cardozo’s in the Loop. In 1979 they bought La Fontanella, at 24th and Oakley, from the original owners; they ran that until 1986, when they moved to Palos Park and opened Sylvia’s (which new owners have renamed Hobnobs). “I like opening new locations and creating new menus, as well as redoing and rebuilding a restaurant and making it successful,” says Guido. “After a while, I’ve sold the restaurant and moved on, but all of my restaurants remain in business.”

In 1990 she and her husband moved to Puerto Rico to retire, but it didn’t take Guido long to decide that the island needed a good Italian restaurant. So they opened a branch of La Fontanella in the northeastern port city of Fajardo. They ran it until 2000, when they yielded to their family’s pleas to return to Chicago.

Guido’s most recent stab at retirement lasted as long as it took her to find her current location, on Lincoln just north of Wilson. “I liked the idea of being near the Old Town School of Music and all the little Lincoln Square shops,” she says. She bought the property in early 2001, spent nine months remodeling and working up a menu, and opened Bella Domani for business in December. This time she did it all on her own–her husband intends to stay retired.

At Bella Domani, Guido offers a number of non-Sicilian options, including veal parmigiana, caprese, and calamari, which she says customers seem to expect. The rest of the menu, though, is made up of comfort food from her mother’s homeland, like the house specialty of arancini, a lightly breaded and fried rice ball stuffed with meat, peas, raisins, cheese, and tomato sauce and spiced with cloves. “It’s a dish commonly sold on the streets,” says Guido. Other Sicilian-style preparations include shrimp Leah–named after one of her daughters, it’s a light saute with plum tomatoes, peppers, and red onion, served with polenta–and a seasonal artichoke starter stuffed with bread, cheese, eggs, and spices. “I boil the stuffed artichoke in olive oil and garlic, producing a broth that can be drunk almost as a soup,” says Guido. It’s so popular that customers often call ahead to find out whether it’s on the menu.

Guido believes her cooking is distinguished by the use of lots of fresh vegetables and a light hand with spices. “Sicilian food is like your mother’s cooking for you at home. It’s fish and poultry flavored with lots of fresh basil and white wine,” she says. “It’s not distinguished by any particular sauces. The dishes rely very much on proper cooking to bring out the flavor of the food itself.”

Desserts reflect the decade she spent in Fajardo. “I started doing homemade gelatos in Puerto Rico, where I had every kind of fruit you could imagine growing in my backyard. I also make a tortoni ice cream with shredded roasted coconut, almond, and vanilla-flavored gelato, which you don’t see in too many restaurants in Chicago.”

Even without Peacock involved, Bella Domani has become a real family affair. Leah, a School of the Art Institute graduate, designed the awnings and the menu, and her artwork hangs on the dining room walls. “My daughter Gina, a lawyer, helps most nights and oversees the dining room to make sure things are running well,” says Guido. “My son [Simon Jr.] has been in the kitchen since he was four, when he started helping me out by making tomato bread. He’s 30 now, and hopefully going to take over the restaurant when I retire, although I think I’ve probably got another ten years–and maybe another restaurant or two–left.”

Bella Domani is at 4603 N. Lincoln, Chicago, 773-561-9177.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Stephen J. Serio.