El Mercado is a little grocery store on the corner of Southport and Grace in Lakeview Chicago. Across the street is a Dairy Queen. A couple of doors down is the Music Box Theatre. Wrigley Field is about a half-mile away.
On the front counter, you’ll find—in my humble Midwestern opinion—the best empanadas in town. There are two dozen or so empanadas organized in a metallic warmer like what you’d see at a pizza-by-the-slice place. Some are fried, some baked. Choices include chicken, spinach, ham and cheese, ground beef. Head to the back and there’s the butcher counter. They’ve got fresh cuts of beef with a color of red you don’t always see at the chain grocery stores.
Everything the Di Sapio family has built over the last four decades (which includes Tango Sur, Folklore, Bodega Sur, Ñ, and El Mercado), everything comes back to this counter. Their story begins in the mid-70s when Rodolfo Di Sapio was working here as a butcher, saving up enough money to buy the corner store.
Rodolfo Di Sapio, known by those close to him as “Che,” was born in Rosario, Argentina. His parents emigrated from Italy and didn’t have a whole lot of money. Rodolfo started working as a butcher at age 17 and didn’t move to Chicago until he was 40. He moved here by himself first to find work, get established, and then moved his wife (Amelia) and his newborn son (Sergio). The corner store at that time was a Cuban market and Rodolfo continued to work here as an employee for another five years before buying the store.
Amelia worked the front counter. Sergio started out helping his dad make the empanadas when he was 11 or 12-years-old. Che would pay Sergio 10 cents per empanada. In his teenage years, Sergio began unloading boxes from the truck. Sergio’s younger sister, Jenny, also helped out in the store. The South American community in the Southport neighborhood embraced this little market, coming in to buy the newspaper, talk about soccer, and buy products from Brazil, Peru, and, of course, Argentina.
Just like his dad, Sergio was aggressively saving money with the vision of buying a place of his own. In 1997, Sergio was 21-years-old and had $15,000 in the bank. He came to his dad with an idea for a restaurant that would feel like a steakhouse in Argentina. Candlelit tables. Large cuts of steak. They’d serve authentic dishes like churrasco, matambre, they’d have their own chimichurri sauce. His dad was on board and so there they were, two decades after Rodolfo came to the United States by himself, the Di Sapios had the corner store and a new restaurant next door.
“How do I explain Sergio?” Paulo Villabona, Director of Bar Operations said. “He’s got a young spirit. He’s really into entertainment, like, he was one of those people growing up, always wanting to know where the party’s at, and then became a facilitator. He’s like, alright, I’m going to make the best parties and I’m going to make the best places to go and hang out. And so, he’s really meticulous when it comes to creating spaces for people to enjoy themselves. If the light bulb is a couple of watts too high, you know, lower the music in the surroundings, things like that. But he’s very calm and collected, even when things go crazy and I think it was cool the juxtaposition between him and his father. His father was, you know, a sweet man, but could be more intense.”
The passion for throwing a good party led to the creation of Ñ, an Argentinian cocktail lounge at 2977 N. Elston over in the Avondale neighborhood. Their cocktail list features South American favorites – Capirinhas, Mojitos, and Pisco Sours. They have live music or a DJ depending on the night.
The nightclub flies a little bit under the radar.
“It’s cool, you drive around, and it’s like there’s nothing around there,” Villabona said. “It looks kind of like an old warehouse. And so new guests will think this is a waste of time, am I in the wrong place? Until they walk in.”
Villabona has been working with the family for 11 years now. He joined with the creation of their fourth location called Folklore at 2100 Division between the Ukrainian Village and Wicker Park. Folklore is similar to Tango Sur. Dark. Candlelit. Similar menu. It’s like they took the formula for Tango Sur and added the cocktails they mastered over at Ñ.
Tango Sur continues to grow in popularity. If you head there on a Friday or Saturday night, you might need to wait an hour, even two hours, without a reservation. Because of this, the Di Sapios were always sending their guests to other bars or had them shop down Southport while they waited for a table. So a couple of years ago, they decided to create another restaurant next door called Bodega Sur. This would be a place to order wine and smaller bites while you waited for a table at Tango Sur.
“One thing the bodega offers that none of the other places offers is breakfast and lunch,” Villabona said. “All the other locations don’t open till after five o’clock. We’ve also kind of taken more liberties with the bodega, where we have brought other influences in food, and in spirits, and the wine. It’s not as Argentine eccentric, but it’s very Argentine influenced. You’ll also find things, we bring in French, Italian, Spanish, Mexican, and other South American influence.
Jenny and her husband run Bodega Sur.
It has to be a really cool feeling on a random Saturday for the Di Sapio family when they walk from the corner of Southport and Grace to the Music Box Theatre. There’s the market. The restaurant. The tapas bar. Hop in an Uber and you’re at Folkore. End the night with some music and drinks at Ñ. Restaurants are different from books or paintings. They’re works of art you actually get to live in and experience. And while Rodolfo may have passed away in 2014, his vision lives on in five spots around the city, led by his family. Who knows what the sixth and seventh spots will be, where they’ll be, when those will happen, but Chicago and these neighborhoods are that much better because Rodolfo came here to work as a butcher almost 50 years ago.
How they’re dealing with Covid-19
Despite the name, Medium Rare isn’t normally a food blog. But for the next several weeks, I’ll be featuring great local restaurants around the Lakeview neighborhood in hopes that readers support them with pickup & delivery orders now and go in-person later this year. Other posts include:
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