By Michael Nagrant
Saying that the 77-year-old red-sauce joint Tufano’s Vernon Park Tap has seen a lot is like saying Magellan took a short boat trip. When the tap opened in 1931, Halsted was paved with brick and Taylor Street was the port of entry for Italian immigrants. Italian beef may have been drenched in gravy and sandwiched between two pieces of Gonnella bread, but only in those immigrants’ kitchens, as Al’s Italian Beef didn’t open until 1938.
Farther down Taylor, Ferrara Pan was going strong, though founder Salvatore Ferrara wasn’t making his living off Atomic Fireballs (invented in 1954) but from candy-coated almonds.
In 1931, a 29-year-old Richard J. Daley hadn’t even earned his law degree from DePaul. Plans for a modern urban campus, aka, the UIC circle, and the Eisenhower freeway, which cut out the Eastern flank of the community in the 1960s, weren’t even a gleam in Richard M.’s old-man’s eye.
Theresa DiBuono, nee Tufano, the late founder and current proprietor Joe DiBuono’s grandmother, told Tribune columnist Rick Soll in 1974, “You see the circle campus. Sure, I think it’s wonderful the students have such a place. But those buildings, sometimes they are like tombstones for the homes that used to be there. My friends used to live there.”
Daley was no match for this culinary stalwart though. Over the years Tufano’s became a Hollywood red carpet that also served red sauce.
As the UIC rose, writer Nelson Algren discovered Tufano’s, making it part of his pre-Comiskey visits.
The night Frank Sinatra walked in, Joey’s father, the late Sam DiBuono, locked the doors, and “…my grandmother made pasta fagioli, calamari, baccala, ravioli, chicken, and that was it, nobody bothered him.”
Tufano’s wood-laminate-paneled walls also hosted Jack Nicholson, Dan Marino and Sparky Anderson, the cantankerous former skipper for my hometown Detroit Tigers.
When matriarch Theresa got sick in the late 1990s, Father Pat Marshall of the UIC Newman Center, a Catholic student fellowship, started coming to the restaurant on Ash Wednesdays with ashes for patrons.
Most recently, the James Beard Foundation named Tufano’s, which still doesn’t take credit cards and pioneered the no-sign restaurant fifty years before Alinea, an “American Classic.”
Given all of this, and especially since I only live about six blocks away, you’d think I’d have eaten there by now. But my first visit didn’t happen until a month ago. As a recent Chicago transplant, I’d cast my multi-generational-run Italian joint lot with the Gennaro family on Taylor, where fifty years later the homemade cavatelli and cornmeal-kissed fried calamari is still inspired. Courting another old-school spot would have been like cheating.
Ah, but for this communion-chomping Catholic boy, the illicit charms of a love affair were too hard to spurn. Unfortunately, dining at Tufano’s turned out to be like anticipating a night with Scarlett Johansson only to find out she screwed with the frigidity of Scarlett O’Hara.
The flavorless red sauce tasted as if the kitchen dumped out canned peeled whole tomatoes, chopped them up and warmed them through. The clams were gritty. The special salad featured limp red peppers and iceberg lettuce swimming in watered-down vinaigrette.
Our server brought bread sans olive oil and disappeared. One of her compatriots sat sullen-faced ten feet away talking about marrying a rich man to get away from “this place.” She stared straight through us even when my wife went to the busser’s stand to grab a bottle of olive oil herself.
Though, according to a 1990 Sun-Times article which said “Frank the Bartender said that when he came to the Tap as a kid, waitresses threw silverware at the customers,” this might have been par for the course. Though the waitress’ condition didn’t seem like charming surliness, but rather pill-requiring melancholy. Even old Joe DiBuono made us nervous with repeated glances that felt like telepathic urges to eat our cannoli faster so he could turn the table.
After recounting this experience, an experienced Tufano’s regular told me that I just didn’t know what to order. So I returned, for the lemon chicken, which turned out dry, and the eggplant parmagiana, which was soggy with the aforementioned bland red sauce.
Normally, a review like this reflects a spot that’s barely been open a few months, where owners, for a variety of reasons, are shortchanging customers. At Tufano’s, they’ve been celebrating life and cultivating generations of friends and family for three quarters of a century. They’re likely just tired.
That being said, I hope my experience is a depression in what will likely be a hundred years of providing Chicago with a sense of place in the battle against homogenization. The endurance of regulars is what matters, and right now, there’s no lack. In 1993, Sun-Times critic Pat Bruno wrote, “As happens in the restaurant business, Vernon Park Tap ran lukewarm for a while.” He then added, “I am happy to report that, after a couple of intensive eating visits, Vernon Park Tap is in rare form—the food is at an all-time high.” I’m looking forward to a similar visit a few years from now.
Tufano’s is located at 1073 West Vernon Park Place, (312)733-3393.