Heading west on Grand Avenue, away from the bustle of downtown, the street turns increasingly industrial. But duck into cozy Italian restaurant La Scarola, and you’ll be welcomed into a warmly lit, cozy oasis that bubbles with the sounds of glasses clinking, and spills over with crowds waiting for a table. Nearly every night, both locals and travelers from as far away as Europe flock to La Scarola to get a taste of chef Armando Vasquez’s unfussy, flavorful Italian cooking.
The restaurant’s décor is pure homespun charm: Photos of famous friends and celebrity visitors (like George Clooney and Keanu Reeves) line the walls along with paintings and a mural of Italy, grape vines hang from the ceiling, and there is an active, open kitchen, which reflects the buzzing energy level of the staff. But the best part about La Scarola is the food. Simply put, it is delicious. Traditional Italian pasta dishes such as eggplant Parmigiana, linguini and clams, cheese ravioli alla forno, and lasagna share the menu with rich meat dishes, such as a veal marsala and chicken vesuvio. Those in the know, though, reach instantly for the specials menu, which offers a rotating roster of dishes, some traditional and some based on frequent customer requests.
Chef Armando Vasquez is to thank for that, and more. You’ve heard the saying, “Nobody puts baby in a corner”? Well, nobody keeps Vasquez in the kitchen.
La Scarola owes much of its success and personality to its ebullient chef, who has helmed the kitchen since opening the restaurant with business partner Joey Mondelli in 1997. Calling La Scarola “my house,” Vasquez, who hails from Oaxaca, Mexico and moved to Chicago in 1991 after spending some time in New York, treats his guests like family, sometimes picking up the check for a longtime regular, but more often sharing shots of tequila with his customers. The tradition, which started as a joke from someone wishing Vasquez a happy birthday when it wasn’t his birthday, has grown to the point that he receives upwards of 200 bottles of tequila at the restaurant each year. (He jokes that it still “is not enough.”) Vasquez’s charisma endears him to people—celebrities, music moguls, regular guests—who do him favors, such as getting him tickets to the World Series, inviting him to the Grammys, or even putting him up in their homes. And once you’re in with Vasquez, you start to get special favors, too. Just don’t let it go to your head—you’ve still got a shot of tequila to take. 721 W. Grand Ave., 312-243-1740