Until two years ago, fine dining in Hyde Park was an oxymoron. The University of Chicago community has never lacked for a sophisticated, affluent clientele, but somehow no decent French or contemporary American restaurant had succeeded there. Not even the renowned John Snowden–who ran La Provencale for a few years in the early 60s–could pull it off. But now there’s hope, thanks to a workaholic neighborhood bartender who dropped out of the U. of C. but graduated from the Cordon Bleu in Paris at age 40, even though she’d never worked in a restaurant.

Mary Mastricola and husband Mike opened La Petite Folie–“the little madness”–two years ago in the Hyde Park Shopping Center, where once a Wimpy’s provided the haute cuisine. Their offerings gained a rare star-and-a-half rating in Chicago magazine this spring, a mention in the Zagat survey, and even a listing in the Fodor’s guide to Chicago. More important, they appear to have the kind of following that could keep them in business for some time to come.

In 1974 Mary Bartholomew was a chemistry undergrad. She quit in her fourth year and got an administrative job showing people around Rockefeller Chapel and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House. She also took a gig at the legendary Woodlawn Tap–known to regulars as Jimmy’s–where she met Mike Mastricola. “He taught me how to tend bar,” she says. “I was working 40 or 50 hours a week at the university and putting in another 40 hours at Jimmy’s.” Mike, meanwhile, was holding down three jobs: serving up brews at Jimmy’s, teaching high school dropouts in a GED program, and coaching at the U. of C. Lab School.

They married in 1989. Over the next few years they took several trips to Europe, and it was on a visit to Paris that Mary’s big idea struck: go to the Cordon Bleu and open a restaurant. “I realized that whatever I was going to do, I’d work a lot of hours,” she says. “There aren’t very many men who would say, ‘OK, let’s quit our jobs and go to Paris for a few years so you can go to cooking school.'” But he did, and they went, in 1994.

“I was 39–the oldest one in my class. Most were in their early 20s.” Mike taught himself French and learned about wine. “I’d come back to our fifth-floor walk-up with badly burned hands, ready to quit, but he kept me going.” After an intensive year she graduated, and the head Cordon Bleu chef placed her in a neighborhood restaurant in the 15th arrondisement, near Montparnasse. “I wanted to work in a little chef-owned restaurant, not a hotel or big kitchen, so I could see the way they do things.” Next she was placed in a small two-star restaurant near the Eiffel Tower, to get a taste of higher cuisine. “French chefs are incredibly generous in sharing information,” Mastricola says. “I learned more working at the restaurants in a few months than I did in the year at school.”

Back in Chicago in late 1996, she found a job at a poorly regarded upscale restaurant downtown that she refuses to identify, where she was quickly made head chef. She quit within six months. “I don’t want anyone to know I worked there–but I learned a lot about local suppliers and I kept a list. This was very important.”

Then the Mastricola master plan kicked into high gear. They found the location and a friend helped write a business plan. “Nobody could loan us $50,000, but a lot of friends could risk the probable loss of $1,000 or $2,000,” she says. “We were sort of fulfilling what a lot of them wanted to do.” They ultimately raised $75,000 in dribs and drabs.

The place was cobbled together, she says, thanks in large part to her contractor brother. He created the distinctive floor-to-ceiling room divider that surrounds the stairwell to the basement–where the kitchen is. The head chef at Cordon Bleu and the owner of the first Paris restaurant she worked in helped her design the kitchen. Mary herself made the cloth covers for the dining room’s banquettes and wall sconces. The pale peach room is simple, classy, and perfectly lit. It makes you forget you’re in a shopping center–or in Hyde Park.

“I learned a lot about the realities of doing business in Hyde Park,” Mastricola says. “No one with any experience wants to work here. None of my kitchen staff ever worked in a restaurant. The good part is I taught them everything–just the way I learned it–so I get exactly what I want.”

What she wants, the customers relish. A superb napoleon of smoked trout with chive-horseradish cream is layered with crisp, flaky pastry. The goose liver pate with cepes and onion confit is as lush as anything you’d find in Alsace. The sesame-crusted cod is enhanced by a green peppercorn sauce made with reduced veal stock and wine–right out of the Cordon Bleu–and paired with garlic mashed potatoes. A distinctive fig flan sets off the perfectly cooked duck breast. There are lots of fine wines by the glass and a surprisingly good cellar, tended by Mike. The menu changes every three or four months.

After a night in the subterranean kitchen, Mastricola is bleary. “Anyone who likes cooking and thinks they want to open a restaurant, I’d like to have a real discussion with them,” she says. “But I guess those discussions and warnings wouldn’t do any good. Anyone who’s single-minded or pigheaded like me, they’d go ahead anyway.”

La Petite Folie is at 1504 E. 55th, 773-493-1394.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.