America's Classics: Donnie Madia on Tufano’s Vernon Park Tap
JBF EditorsJBF Editors
March 30, 2016
Tufano’s Vernon Park Tap
Tucked away on a residential side street in what remains of Chicago’s Little Italy, Tufano’s Vernon Park Tap has been owned and operated by the same family since Joseph DiBuono and Theresa Tufano DiBuono opened their barroom in 1930. The original small table in the bar’s kitchen, where Joseph DiBuono worked his culinary magic, has since expanded to include two dining rooms that are regularly packed with businessmen, police officers, families, and pregame sports fans. Today the restaurant is run by Joey DiBuono, the grandson of the original owners, and he has maintained many of the details that ground Tufano’s in its history: chalkboard menus, a cash-only policy, and hearty Italian-American fare like fried calamari, eggplant Parmesan, and the DiBuono family’s legendary lemon chicken.
Beloved by generations of Chicago natives, Tufano’s played a special role in the opening of James Beard Award–winning restaurant Blackbird. A favorite of Chef Paul Kahan, who ate there frequently with his father as a child, Tufano’s was also the site of early planning sessions among business partners Kahan, Donnie Madia, and Rick Diarmit, who used to huddle at the restaurant every Tuesday night while Madia tended bar. Today Kahan and Madia credit the iconic eatery with helping them shape their approach to hospitality and, as it turns out, stay afloat in the early days before Blackbird opened.
Joey DiBuono and I went to high school together, and after Joey took over the restaurant, I worked for him for nine years tending bar. It’s a family restaurant, and it has been a family restaurant for eighty-five years. I remember working there when Joey's grandmother was still making sauce. I used to have Sunday dinners at his grandmother’s house next door and there was a pass-through to the Tufano’s kitchen—for years she used to pass the sauce through this pass-through. And his Aunt Toni would come at six in the morning when nobody was there to make the meatballs and the ravioli.
Everything is served family-style there. There aren’t any menus: everything is written down on chalkboards throughout the restaurant. You just look at the board and talk to the servers and decide what you want to eat that evening. The eggplant Parm is made daily, and the lemon chicken with the potatoes is always a staple. Plus tripe in red sauce every Friday. Once in a while you’d be lucky enough to get his aunt Toni’s pizza and, I swear to god, she made the best pizza. For years I’d ask Joey to put her pizza on the menu.
I was working at Tufano’s when we were in the conceptual phase with Blackbird and having conversations about what kind of restaurant we were going to operate and how we were going to operate it. Paul and Ricky would come over every Tuesday night and we would have meetings at the bar. I would bartend, and they would eat eggplant Parmesan and Joey’s family’s famous recipe for lemon chicken.
Joey was also instrumental in helping us open Blackbird. Not only did he give me an opportunity when I decided to make a career change and open the restaurant, but in those days we kept running out of money to finance this project and he was right there for us—not once but twice. He was a great pillar of support for us.
We also learned an incredible amount about hospitality from Joey. Tufano’s is an amazing neighborhood gathering place, and Joey’s such an incredible host. He knows everybody’s name—whether it’s a politician or a regular who always eats there before a Bulls game, he not only knows their name, he also knows their kids’ names and at which table they'd want to sit. He knows how to greet people and welcome people. We knew that since Blackbird is this white, stark restaurant it could be intimidating to our first-time guests, so we welcome our guests like we’d welcome them in our homes, just like Joey does.
We also run our business like a family business. Ricky’s mother worked in the pastry kitchen at Blackbird making truffles for nine to ten years. And before my aunt Rita passed away she would come in once a week to prep with all the line cooks and Paul. That’s what we got from Joey and Tufano’s: hospitality and a sense of family.
—Donnie Madia, JBF Award Winner
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