It is the last of the family owned restaurants on Taylor, the street that runs through the center of the neighborhood where immigrants congregated in such numbers in the early decades of the 20th Century that it earned its designation as Little Italy. Salvatore would go to the Fulton Street markets most every morning to select his meat and produce for the day. Roseanne would stay behind in the kitchen, making fresh pasta and starting sauces from the recipes that her mother and grandmother perfected. The laughter and toasts of the diners feasting at the nine tables on the first floor bounce off the marred wood floor, pounded tin ceiling, and white-washed walls cluttered with dozens of family photos. Its name is their names: Roseanne and Salvatore… RoSal’s.
Our first time there was a test. I had a client coming in from the East Coast and when I asked about dinner, she was delighted. “How ‘bout Italian – authentic Italian,” she emphasized, with a New Jersey delivery that elongates vowels and drops “r’s.” She grew up in a household where Mom made pasta and Dad made sauce so she was picky, she said. No pressure.
My husband Larry and I had our favorites but I spent a couple days asking others about theirs. Rosebud, Tuscany, Carmine’s, Gene and Georgetti’s – all came up, but they have “touristy” stamped all over them, not authentic. An acquaintance described RoSal’s using adjectives that reeked of authentic: nothing fancy or forced, old-country friendly, grandma’s recipes, last of its kind, treat you like family. It sounded worthy of a test.
Linda, the short, round, smiling hostess/manager/server for the night, greeted us warmly and I explained about my client coming in without saying my husband and I were there to rate the food and experience. Eight of the nine tables in the main floor dining room were full and we took the last one, right next to the open kitchen, noting the two by the window overlooking Taylor Street would be a better spot. We ordered house specialties and were struck by Linda’s invitation to change ingredients at will. “If you want spinach in that rather than broccoli, no problem. Change the pasta if you’d like, or the sauce. You can throw shrimp in that vegetarian dish. Whatever you’d like, the kitchen is glad to substitute.”
Dinner was superb, delicious, reminiscent of dinners we had in small towns in central Italy. Not only were we treated like family but we seemed to be their absolutely favorite relatives.
Three days later I returned with my client in tow. She looked around approvingly at the family-owned-restaurant décor and at Linda, who smiled her way to the front of the room. “You must be Melissa,” Linda beamed at my client after giving me a long-lost-friend hug. “Welcome to RoSal’s. Dorothy’s told me so much about you! I’m so glad to meet you.” and she turned to put us at her best table, in the corner by the window.
We could have been served hot dogs and I’m convinced Melissa would have loved the place. But instead the $6 a glass house chianti, fried ravioli, antipasto salad, chicken RoSal’s and Italian ice served in a frozen lemon exceeded her expectations. Pleasantly full. Feeling warm and cozy. The evening ended with a hug from a client who is apt to be business as usual.
RoSal’s never disappoints, even when Linda isn’t there for Joe, who now runs the place since Roseanne and Sal unofficially retired, takes over and gets to know his regulars in the same, embracing way. He’ll pull a chair up to your table and talk about anything – his kids, yours, vacations, what’s new, how’s business, how the White Sox are doing for they play not far from RoSals and fans congregate there before or after games. He forgives Larry for being a Cubs fan and they both envision the day when their teams are on opposite sides of the World Series and cream the other side of town. A born-and-bred Sox fan with the glory of having a World Series win a few years back, and a husband who I love desperate to see his guys “win one before I croak,” as he’s fond of saying, I dread the specter of a north side vs. south side series and find myself silently relieved when my Sox go into a slump.
I used to order shells with broccoli every time we were there, adding shrimp usually, or chicken when I was up for a change. But chicken Florentine beckoned when it was served at the table next to us and it threatened to become my regular except that the specials on the last page of the menu continually tempt explorations and never disappoint. Larry always orders meat lasagna even when he vows he is going to try something new. He doesn’t even ask for a bite of mine, and Linda reassures him that ordering the one thing you love most is smart, because it’s not like you come every night or even once a week or month.
Larry had a yen for that lasagna while recovering from surgery at nearby Rush Medical Center so I called and asked if they did carry-outs. Nuts, I said when the person on the other end of the line said sorry, no. He so loves your lasagna.
“Dorothy, is that you?” It was Linda who put Larry and lasagna together.
“Yeah. Larry’s over here at Rush and I thought I’d get him a big treat.”
“Be here in a half hour and we’ll have it ready for you,” she said without missing a beat.
The package I took back to the hospital had lasagna to last four meals, a loaf of their crisp-crust bread, the antipasto salad and half a pan of tiramisu – all for the price of a lasagna entrée. What can I say?
RoSal’s is our hands-down favorite restaurant here or anywhere. We long for a return trip when we haven’t been there for a while. And Linda, who gives us both long-lost-friend hugs when we walk through the door, still asks about Melissa as though she saw her last week. I smile at her Linda-ness. It was eight years ago.