Chef Vince Pecora has served his Italian food for sports stars, at TV and movie sets, and aboard Air Force One, but the clients he most wants to please are those from the northwest suburbs; especially those who miss his former restaurant: Café Clamenza, which began life in Barrington.
“I had two in Palatine, two in Hoffman and one in Schaumburg and one in Elk Grove,” he said.
Ironically, that success resulted in the closing of the chain.
"I kind of lost control. It was a good lesson from me though," he said
Pecora’s life in the restaurant business is filled with lessons gleaned from Chicago restaurant royalty, and he has studied well.
It began in 1982, when at age 10, Pecora lost his mother to cancer.
“I was the youngest kid, so I always made sure there was dinner on the table,” Pecora said. “My dad was a physician, but he cooked for the family. My aunts and uncles, they all came over to cook for all of us. By 16, I knew a lot — more than a lot of people would know at that age.”
After a brief foray into medical school, he dropped out and went to work as a manager for Dick Portillo, owner of the Chicago favorite: Portillo’s.
“I was trained by one of the best people in the country in the fundamentals of restaurant service: quality, service, attitude, and cleanliness,” he said.
From there, he moved on to the Lettuce Entertain You franchise owned by Chicago restaurant mogul Richard Melman
“He taught me customer recognition and reassurance,” Pecora said. “They recognize that you’re in charge and you reassure them that you’re in charge. If there’s a problem, it’s easy. Apologize, acknowledge, and act.”
His next stop in the school of food service came when he began work as a manager at former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka’s namesake restaurant.
“Right after they won the Super Bowl,” Pecora noted. “It was Ditka’s heyday. At the time, Ditka’s was the third-grossing restaurant in the country. First there was Tavern on the Green, Bob Chinn’s and then us.”
Pecora’s final stop before venturing out on his own was as general manager at Ditka’s Trackside at Arlington Park.
From there, he opened his first pizza place called Poppa Clemenza’s in the area he described as North Hoffman/Inverness/South Barrington.
“People thought it was my last name but I got it from a character in The Godfather,” he said.
The pizzeria was a rousing success, which Pecora attributes partly to lessons he learned from previous jobs.
“It really took off because of my training with Portillo’s and my recipes from my family and Melman and Ditka’s and everything,” he said.
However, teachers can only teach so much. Much of Pecora’s success grew from relationships he built with customers. “I knew everyone’s name,” he said. “I knew what they wanted. It was how I was raised too. So if you walk in and I know you want your sausage pizza on Friday and roasted chicken on Saturday.”
“I had a real nice following though for 14 years of people in the northwest suburbs,” Pecora remembered. “It comes from my heart; it’s my passion. I treat everyone like they’re my family.”
“I have such respect for him; for his integrity and his honesty and his caring and I’m very much the same way,” business associate Nancy Lazzaroni said. “He gives too much, but he loves to see people happy when they eat.”
Lazzaroni, who works as an events planner, met Pecora when he worked in Chicago and they became friends. Pecora moved on to open his Poppa Clemenza’s pizza and cafes. A marriage for Lazzaroni and a subsequent move to the suburbs brought the two together once more.
After closing his chain, Pecora turned to catering to pay the bills. At that point, Lazzaroni offered her services to Pecora’s fledgling catering company
“I remember I said, ‘I think I could work well with you, if you ever need help. Let me know.’ He called me about wedding where they wanted a tent and we hooked up and did weddings together and events,” Lazzaroni said.
It wasn’t Pecora’s first foray into catering. From 1996 until 2000, he catered Air Force One. President Bill Clinton’s staff happened upon his food while in Chicago and proclaimed it “the best Italian in the country.”
“From 1996 to 2000, whenever they’d come into Chicago. I’d get a call from Air Force One asking me to bring food on the plane” Pecora recalled. “I’d come onto the plane and deliver everything to the galley, I’d set it up and then the chef took over from there.”
Visitors from the White House weren’t the only ones to discover Pecora’s ability to provide delicious menus at the spur of the moment. “I also did TV shows and movies. I was overtime caterer. They’d call me at noon and say, 'We’re at Dearborn and Wacker and we need 400-500 people at 7:00.' Wherever they said, I went. That’s one of my niches: last-minute catering,” he said.
However, it wasn’t only the rich and famous who blazed a trail to the door of Pecora’s catering business. Barrington-area residents began to sing the praises of, not only Pecora’s catering business, but of the food itself, as well.
“It was just outstanding,” said Joy Simon who dropped in to check the details for an upcoming event. “The taste, the quality, the amount, it’s not like my normal experience with catering. There are lots of caterers. This was a step above. The service.”
Another claim to fame is an aspect of his business, which was covered by ABC’s Chicago happenings program, 290 North. Pecora’s catering service brings a wood burning pizza oven to the site of an event and turns out as many personalized pizzas as requested.
“Last year we did Willow Creek’s 35th anniversary and we did pizza for 25,000 people. 1,400 pizzas in three shifts,” he said.
Pecora feels the time has come to open a brick and mortar business once more, having acquired wisdom from the loss of his first venture. “I’m starting over again. I’ve been catering in the Barrington area since ’06. I had a private investor that wanted to take it to another level and I think it’s about time. I’m a much wiser man and I wanted to do one nice concept,” he said.
That concept is Ciao Baby on Main Street, a storefront restaurant at 232 E. Main St., which opened for lunch on Tuesday, Sept. 20. The restaurant will offer dinner beginning Oct. 4.
“The backbone of all my own stores is create your own pasta,” said Pecora of his new menu.
The customer chooses from eight sauces, which range from $8 to $12, including creamy pesto, bolognese, and garlic butter and parmesan. A list of eight pastas is included in that price.
Finally, hungry diners can choose from more than 25 extras, such as spinach, pine nuts and egg plant cutlets, with a price range of $1 to $4.
“The menu is very customer friendly. Everything’s made to order,” Pecora said. “It’s reasonably priced. Like my other stores, I want people dining in three times a week.”
“I have a lot of unique things that are labor-intensive dishes: like baked clams, stuffed artichokes, different kind of fish dishes. My sauces have to be done right, my homemade gnocchi, light as a feather,” he said.
There are pizzas, salads, and sandwiches, including the perennial Chicago favorite: Italian beef. His recipe for stuffed Italian meatloaf was published in one of Chicago’s newspapers and boasts four cheeses, spinach, Canadian bacon, and herbs.
Since Ciao Baby is located near the Barrington train station, Pecora has thought to include dinners to go.
“I have beautiful packages,” he said. “You can get a roasted chicken or chicken Vesuvius, chicken parmesan or pasta dinner with roasted potatoes or grilled vegetables available in containers so you just zap it and it’s ready.”
Mouth watering yet? Mine was, so chef Vince popped up from the table and disappeared into his kitchen. After a few minutes, he reappeared with ravioli stuffed with homemade sausage in suprema sauce and a soft garlic bread stick with mozzarella melting inside. I was counting my blessings when he returned with a chopped salad topped with mango Chardonnay dressing and my blessing list soared.
If bribery was his intent, it wasn’t necessary, as the food had a familiar feeling with out-of-the-box flavors, which melded into a delightful treat for the tongue.
“As many times as I try to take a little short cut, I can’t do it,” the chef said. “It’s not in my nature.
“You’re only as good as your last meal or people won’t come and back,” Lazzaroni noted.
I’ll be back.