A Talk at Table 70 with Tony Abruscato
by elle eichinger
In his heyday, legendary baseball broadcaster Harry Caray would come into his eponymous River North restaurant and hold court at Table 70, a round corner table looking out into the main floor dining room. Now, Table 70 belongs to regular Tony Abruscato (a framed photo of him with the famous bust of Harry on the wall bears proof of that), the president and owner of Flower Show Productions, which produces the annual Chicago Flower & Garden Show (this year March 9 to 17). Over drinks in the dining room (Belvedere up with olives is Abruscato’s libation of choice: “It’s quick, easy, smooth, and straight to the point”), we talked about the enormous task of producing the Flower & Garden Show and making time for friends and drinks at Harry Caray’s Italian Steakhouse & Bar.
You definitely appear to be friendly with everyone here. What makes Harry Caray’s your favorite spot in the city?
TONY ABRUSCATO: I met [CEO] Grant DePorter through the Chicago Flower & Garden Show, and we became friends. I found that this was a great place to bring clients for lunch and friends for dinner, so I just started coming more and more. It’s kind of my Cheers, where people know who I am. It’s a nice feeling.
Do you ever come in alone?
TA: I have, actually. A lot of times if I’m in the neighborhood, I’ll stop in the bar area and have a quick lunch. They’ve given me the Wi-Fi password, so I’m able to do e-mails and work.
Speaking of work, a lot of work must go into making the Flower & Garden Show come together.
TA: The physical setup takes 11 days, but planning takes up to 18 months or longer. You have to get flowers into greenhouses and get builders [booked]; arrange for 1,400 tons of sand and soil, boulders, stones, bricks, flowers. I use my background in logistical management to work with our team and get the garden builders and trucks and materials in.
The show has such a storied history, which dates back to 1847. How do you embrace tradition while still moving forward?
TA: [The history] is one of the things I’m trying to recapture because I think it’s important. Everyone wants to be younger, but we’re reclaiming our age. I’m doing a couple of things: I instituted a philosophy of “inspire, educate, and motivate.” It’s great to get people to talk about something—recycling, [going] green—but how do we get people to actually do it? At the show, we teach people how to do it. The other thing we’re doing is creating greater partnerships with the American Institute of Floral Designers and The Garden Clubs of Illinois.
Do you remember the first time you came to Harry Caray’s?
TA: It was long before I met Grant [DePorter]; it had to be 15 or 20 years ago. I came in for the first time, and sitting at this table in the seat I’m sitting in was Harry Caray. He was having dinner, the signature chicken Vesuvio or the pork chops—those were his favorites—and he was the nicest man in the world. People were coming up to him saying hello, talking baseball, and he was signing autographs. It was an experience that I really remember. So for me it’s kind of strange: Fifteen or 20 years later, here I am, friends with the owner and this is my table.
It must be different without Harry around.
TA: The thing that’s fun is from time to time Harry’s wife, Dutchie, is here. It’s always great to see her—she’s a really sweet, energetic, fun lady. I’ve gone to a lot of events with her; she’s a hoot.
What’s your go-to order?
TA: I love the antipasto platter: cheeses and meats and artichoke and things. The calamari is very good as well. Typically I’ll get the Tallgrass beef New York strip. It’s organic, non-steroid, and [the cows] are actually raised in a field, which is rare these days. Often for lunch I’ll order off the menu—sorry Grant!—and have them grill me a piece of salmon with steamed vegetables.
When you’re not at Harry Caray’s, where do you like to dine?
TA: Dinotto Ristorante in Old Town has wonderful food, a great staff, and [I’ve been] longtime friends with the owners, Dino Lubbat and J.C. Canales. And Italian Village downtown is a piece of Chicago’s history, just like the Flower and Garden Show. The Chicago Flower & Garden Show runs March 9 through 17 at Navy Pier, 600 E. Grand Ave., 312-595-5400. Dine at Harry Caray’s, 33 W. Kinzie St., 312-828-0966.
photography by katrina wittkamp
Peter Max talks 'Michigan Avenue'-commissioned cover artwork & more with Mika Brzezinski