Riccardo’s Redux: Phil Stefani Makes Over an Old Favorite

[We thought for a while about naming it Riccardo’s but some pizzeria already has the name,” says Phil Stefani. “So we gave it a neutral name–437 Rush. We figured all the old crowd will still call it Riccardo’s and the new people who don’t know anything about the place will have an address to go by.” He and his partners just spent $6 million rehabbing the three interconnected buildings at the foot of Rush Street that, until five years ago, housed Riccardo Restaurant and Gallery–a fabled eating, drinking, and meeting place for writers, artists, musicians, journalists, and assorted bohos for more than 60 years.

There’s nothing unusual about one restaurant folding and a new one going into the same space; it happens all the time. But this time, two days after 437 Rush opened quietly on a Wednesday in mid-June, the bar was swarming with dozens of Ric’s loyalists–plus tourists, newcomers, and Stefani fans–returning home from exile.

Smart, bright, and poised on the edge of deco-glitz, the new steak house cum fish joint is not just another new restaurant. It’s a piece of cultural history that dates back to the days blacks weren’t usually served in downtown restaurants, but were welcome here.

Ric Riccardo Sr., an artist, dancer, and seaman (born Richard Novaretti in Italy), took over a former speakeasy at 437 N. Rush in 1934 and started serving basic Italian fare like pasta, veal, and a little-known specialty called pizza. He also helped his pal Ike Sewell create Chicago deep-dish pizza, which Sewell introduced at nearby Pizzeria Uno.

Ric’s became a gallery for WPA artists, who displayed their canvases and created murals there. In 1947 he expanded into the southernmost building and built its big palette-shaped bar–a feature Stefani has retained. Behind it was a seven-panel mural depicting the “lively arts”: dance, drama, literature, painting, sculpture, architecture, and music. Two of the most noted panels were by Ivan Albright and his brother Zsissly; another–Dance–was by Ric himself.

Igor Stravinsky dined at Ric’s, and a drunk John Barrymore was said to have behaved badly there. (Underage, I had my first drink there in 1950.) Ric Sr. died in 1954, but son Ric Jr. took over and opera singers continued to belt out arias from their seats at the bar. Studs Terkel and Nelson Algren stayed on as patrons and were joined by another generation of writers including Mike Royko and Roger Ebert in their drinking days. Following the 1968 Democratic convention, radicalized reporters from the nearby papers founded the Chicago Journalism Review in the upstairs banquet room.

Ric Jr., a frustrated actor and singer, left town in the early 70s and took two of the most valuable paintings with him. He sold the place to Nick Angelos and his brother Bill, proprietors of a downtown Greek coffee shop, who retained most of the crowd and the three-ounce martini tradition. But the new generation of artists and writers didn’t drink as their elders had and the new generation of Italian restaurants–including some owned by Phil Stefani–made the simple menu look declasse. Taxes rose, business slowed, and the Angeloses tried to sell. In 1992 a group leased the place and tried to turn it into a dark, hip club. That bombed and the brothers took it back, only to sell the building to the Wrigley company in 1995. The regulars were left barless but, like the White Russians of Paris and the Cubans of Miami, they religiously awaited the day they could return.

Stefani respects the history. He opened the original Stefani’s, a classic Chicago-Italian spot on Fullerton, in 1980. He now has nine restaurants and a dozen more food-service operations at beaches, golf courses, and Navy Pier. “I moved the corporate headquarters here so I could be a physical presence. A real person people could see, like Ric and Nick were. We want the old crowd–but we’ll also get tourists from the new hotels and shopping places like Nordstrom,” he says.

He and designer Randy Pruyn put a new mural by Gregg Gove behind the bar and hung other works by the artist plus dozens of historic photos of Chicago people and places. They opened windows to the street and large portals in the walls between the bar and two dining rooms. A handsome staircase leads to more dining space in the former banquet room and to a section with access to Michigan Avenue that offers a cafe menu at lunch.

The new menu is light-years from the old in style–and price. The focus on steaks and seafood is rather like Stefani’s Tavern on Rush, but there are also six pastas, several common to Stefani’s and Stefani’s Tuscany restaurants.

Executive chef Jerry Pisacreta, formerly of New York’s Grand Central Oyster Bar and the Blue Point Oyster Bar, has come up with some intriguing appetizers such as a lush potato cake with smoked salmon touched with red caviar and lemon creme fraiche and some terrific steamed clams livened with chorizo, in the Portuguese manner. His steak tartare is sparked with preserved lemons, his spaghettini gets shards of compressed tuna roll. There are seven fresh fish simply grilled, plus seven complex creations such as his delightful, bone-in “osso buco” of monkfish and tuna “chateaubriand” with bordelaise sauce. Un-Italian, but Ric would probably approve.

437 Rush is at 437 N. Rush, 312-222-0101.

–Don Rose

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): 437 Rush photo by Nathan Mandell.