Sky Full of Bacon

Neighborhood Fest #2 of Summer #2009: Taste of Melrose Park

I’ve been sort of down on Chicago street festivals, whether it’s Koreanfest or Finnfest you somehow wind up seeing the same pork skewer vendors and insurance company booths at them, but I had a great time earlier this summer at Pierogifest and so that inspired me to finally take David Hammond’s advice and go to Taste of Melrose Park.

Meet famous Italian celebrities at Taste of Melrose Park.

I don’t know a lot about Melrose Park, but having bought a couch there once 15 years ago (since sent to my alley where couches often go to die), it’s definitely an old school Italian-American suburb, the New Joisey of Chicago. Taste of Melrose Park is full of families and church organizations running booths making their family specialty to sell at $2/serving, maybe $3 at most, and though a lot of them are old school pasta and red sauce type dishes (perfectly likable, nothing special), more than a few are much better than that, and the whole event is packed, lively and full of boisterous Chi-town energy.

We hooked up with Hammond and his wife Carolyn Berg, surprised that no other LTHers had taken him up on his posted offer, and he led us to several of the best choices— there were some hearty, enormous arancini (rice balls), and I really liked Melrose Park Peppers, apparently an old local specialty but hard to find now, basically Italian sausage and sauteed green pepper in a bun with marinara sauce.

Others, even if I wasn’t 100% wild about them, where else are you going to go to a street fest and find artichoke casserole in a styrofoam cup?  Try to get that on the north shore. I certainly liked it better than the bread bowl with pasti e fagioli, which threatened to take up way too much valuable stomach space for its fairly ordinary Italian restaurant flavor.

Hammond had more of an adventurous palate than myself, he tried both the clams:

and a stand offering, curiously, soul food-style neckbones, which were pretty rank, he couldn’t get anybody else to try a bite.

We tried other stuff— one kid nursed a pizza slice for about a half hour until a fried Twinkie came his way— but the two things we were really out to try were the famous sfingi, eggy donuts made by an order of nuns, which had at least an hour’s worth of line waiting for the sisters to get each batch out of the fryer:

And the famous fried bologna sandwiches, showcased in Hammond’s article linked above.  He and I stopped by their stand as the others waited for sfingi and he was embraced as a celebrity for having driven traffic to their booth from as far as Glenview.  They also said they wanted to meet his wife (read the article, you’ll see why) and so we relayed that news as we took bologna sandwiches back to our line-bound compatriots.  I was really surprised how good the bologna sandwich was— the combination of fried, slightly blackened and crispy bologna, mustard and sweet caramelized onion, and white bread was great, like a minimalist Chicago hot dog flattened out.

Once we had our sfingi— likewise wonderful, the egginess making them like something between a donut and French toast—

—we made our way back to the bologna booth and Carolyn was embraced as a long lost sister.  In gratitude to Hammond for the article, they invited all of us into the back of their booth for a slice of homemade cheesecake.

As much fun as the fest itself is, as true as it is to the warmly outgoing Italian-American spirit, it quickly became clear that the real fun, the real neighborliness, the real spirit of the fest is in what goes on in the back alleys of the booth rows, where the different stands— mostly amateurs— trade food and recipes and goodnatured jokes back and forth.  And that cheesecake!  It might not have been the best one I ever had in my life, maybe only in the last 20 years, light and creamy and made with love.  I couldn’t have been prouder of my younger son when she asked him how he liked it and his eyes rolled back in his head and he just said, “Soooo gooooood.”  Right answer, Liam, if you want to be invited back next year.  Seriously, I don’t know how you swing an invitation into the vendors’ social lives, but Hammond did so on our behalf, and it was one of the highlights of my summer.

Better photos than mine of much of the food can be found in this LTHForum post.

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