On the road to becoming two of Chicago's most revered restaurateurs, Tony Priolo and Ciro Longobardo have experienced a little bit of everything.
If there is truly such a thing as a guidebook for opening a restaurant, Tony Priolo and Ciro Longobardo ignored it. On the first day they welcomed guests to Piccolo Sogno, there was less than $3,000 in their business and personal bank accounts. When hunger struck, the partners ate at the restaurant. As for sleeping: “Tablecloths make a good blanket and pillow,” Priolo says, chuckling at the memory.
One of the great things about this industry is that there is no accepted blueprint on the path to the American Dream. Hard work and, yes, Priolo admits, a certain measure of luck, can turn dire circumstances into successful building blocks. Since opening right in the thick of 2008’s economic downturn, Piccolo Sogno has thrived in Chicago’s culinary-centric West Loop. Longobardo says they were likely the “last people to get a loan from our bank.” Thankfully, Priolo adds, they weren’t married and didn’t have any kids at the time.
“Our lives were at stake,” he says. “We were just betting on ourselves.”
Those are often the only odds available to hopeful restaurateurs. Priolo and Longobardo accepted them, no questions asked, because they couldn’t look past the first year from a budgeting standpoint. Those worries dissipated as the crowds started to form at the Italian venue, labeled “a virtual visit to Tuscany” by Zagat.
They expected to serve around 120 covers a night during the week and maybe 180 to 200 on Fridays and Saturdays. The reality, in fact, was closer to 220 during “off days” and upward of 300 on the weekends.
“We were just blowing it out of the water. We weren’t ready for it,” Priolo says.
“We pretty much doubled our projections,” Longobardo remembers.
Even so, the partners wanted to make sure they took care of their debts before they took care of themselves. The construction was paid off. Staff continued to enjoy a steady wage. It wasn’t until about a year after the opening that they finally cut a paycheck they could cash.
“We ran for the bank, and I cannot run,” Longobardo jokes.
As surprising as this tale remains for the pair, the future is equally remarkable. In late June, Priolo and Longobardo, along with Executive Chef/Partner Chris Macchia and longtime Piccolo Sogno team member Ricardo Brizuela, opened Nonnina in Chicago’s River North. The concept was a rebranding of their sibling restaurant, Piccolo Sogno Due, which opened in 2012 and was “doing fine,” but felt too similar to the flagship, and didn’t quite mesh with the surrounding neighborhood.
“We never thought any of this would be possible,” Priolo says. “We never thought that we would have a second location or anything like it. It’s a pretty big deal for us.”
Nonnina, an ode to the grandmothers of the group’s founders, is a departure from the white-tablecloth nature of its predecessor. They tripled the size of the bar to around 50 people and hired mixologist consultants to develop a more eclectic cocktail list. There’s also an adjacent grab-and-go counter service, “Nonnina To Go.” The desire was to cater to the myriad of consumers in the area.
“It’s much more urban than we expected, so we also answered the need for that,” Priolo explains. “There’s so much foot traffic here, people are in a hurry, so we did the sub shop part. Also, after work, our bar wasn’t big enough to entertain the after-dinner crowd. So now it is.”
Thus far, Longobardo says the concept has been a hit. “We’re very lucky. There are lines out the door for it almost,” he notes.
Chef Macchia will be the lead on this project, Priolo reports, while Brizuela is serving as the general manager. The menu focuses on the simple, timeless flavors of Italy. A mural of the four grandmothers is a centerpiece of the design, which “captures a cool Italian essence accentuated by dark, sultry elements. Appealing to the new generation of Italian diners, colors and textures like soft velvet and lace, charcoal black and sleek lacquered finishes, and midnight red booths create a classic-chic ambiance throughout,” as stated in a release.
Some dinner menu items include: Antipasti—Baked Clams (Middle neck clams wood-fired with bread crumbs, garlic, parsley, lemon), Ragu della Nonnina (Braised pork ragú over soft polenta, served tableside); and Insalate—Tomato, Gorgonzola DOP + Cipolla Rossa (Mixed tomatoes, oregano, red wine vinegar, Gorgonzola DOP, red onions, olive oil).
For lunch, a couple options are Meatballs alla Nonnina (three grandma-inspired meatballs, tomato sauce) and Linguini Vongole (long thin pasta, Manila clams, garlic, white wine, chili flake parsley).
At this point, Priolo says it feels surreal to think of their path so far. His venture with Longobardo, whom he calls a “wine guru,” came after an established career in The Windy City. In 1997, he opened Coco Pazzo Café as the executive chef and took over the flagship, Coco Pazzo, a year later. He was made a partner of both. The two met during that time and realized they saw Italian cuisine in a similar light.
The Chicago landscape was inspiring as well. Priolo says he wanted to model his business in the mold of iconic steakhouse Gene & Georgetti, which opened in 1941 and has been going strong ever since.
“They’ve been around for a bunch of generations. We’d like that,” he says.
Longobardo believes they’ve built the proper foundation at Piccolo Sogno. “After the first probably five or six months, we kind of had an idea of how solid we would be and from what customers were telling us about the food, ambience, and everything else, we had something that was going to last a long time,” he says. “Still today, I believe, Piccolo Sogno is a restaurant that will stay alive for as long as we want.”
The restaurant’s name actually translates to “Little Dream.” They present fresh, seasonal rustic Italian cuisine with an all-Italian wine list that Longobardo has matured to around 700 labels. The restaurant has also grown from 120 to nearly 280 seats (including the garden). Kitchen space expanded over the years and there’s now a room for 50 or so people, including a private space that often hosts company events and smaller parties. All along, the partners agree that their staff’s willingness to stick around has kept the standards rolling.
“If you treat people the way you want to be treated than they’ll stay with you forever until they’re ready to make their next big move,” Priolo says.
Longobardo laughs before adding, “Me being Italian, I kiss them on the cheek. I give them two kisses. One on the left and one on the right. I’m joking, I’m joking.”
“It’s really, when you think about,” he continues, “a really great story. We hope to keep it going.”