Thursday, September 20, 2018

Flashback 2009: Lezza spumoni: Bellwood ice cream legend started in Little Italy

Gelateria, Rome, 2017

   I'm meeting a friend in Elmhurst for lunch on Friday. Mention of this to my wife drew a series of specific instructions: I was to go to Victor Lezza's new retail store. I was to buy cookies—don't skimp on the lemon ricotta—cannoli, the shells separate from the filling, thank you, to preserve crispness. 
    And finally, don't forget the spumoni.  Which made me think of this story. I can't believe I haven't shared it with you up to now. One of my favorite opening ledes.
     I've spoken with Louie Lezza, and at some point—next week, surely, assuming the steady drumbeat of real news takes a rest, and Chief Keefe doesn't throw his hat into the ring for the mayor's race—I'll find a way to offer an update. Spumoni has been sufficiently covered, below. Time to blow the lid off the Italian cookie situation.

     In Italy, they know not of spumoni.
     "Spumoni? What is this? I have never heard of this," says Marianka Campisi, of Bologna, a 25-year-old intern at the Italian Cultural Institute of Chicago. "I don't think we have this in Italy."
     Rather, the distinctive type of ice cream was invented in America by newly arrived Italian immigrants.
     But we are getting ahead of the story, which begins not long ago in the frozen food aisle at Sunset Foods.
     "I'm getting spumoni," I told my wife, in that way husbands have of automatically narrating their actions, so as not to risk doing anything unapproved.
     I love spumoni and didn't expect resistance. But my wife regarded the container of Edy's spumoni in my hand as if it were a dead kitten.
     "Not that spumoni," she said. "I grew up in Bellwood. If you grew up in Bellwood, there is only Victor Lezza's."
     I returned the Edy's, and reached for a container of Lezza's which, I saw from the label, indeed comes from the west suburb. Which piqued my interest. They're making ice cream in Bellwood?
     Out front, Lezza Spumoni & Desserts looks like any small Italian bakery. A sign offers cakes for weddings and baptisms. Inside, glass cases display distinctive Italian cookies—amaretti, regina, quasimale—in the shapes of leaves, shells, hearts.
     I sit down with Ed Lezza, the third generation Lezza to make spumoni in Chicago. His grandfather, Salvatore Lezza, left his hometown outside Naples and came to the West Side in 1905, where he formed a partnership with the man who created Ferrara Pan candy, to this day a big local candy company, maker of Lemonheads.
     "They were in business, Ferrara and Lezza," says Lezza. "My grandfather was the baker, and Ferrara was the candy maker."
     Soon the partnership extended beyond business.
     "My grandmother's a Ferrara, Lucia Ferrara," he says.
     Despite my wife's belief that the company has been in Bellwood "forever," its first 60 years were in Little Italy. Then Lezza's got in the way of the University of Illinois.
     "We probably still would have been down at Halsted and Taylor streets, but Circle Campus came down there and condemned the property," say Ed Lezza. "We wanted to stay there and we were forced to move."
     Salvatore Lezza passed the company on to his two sons, Jack and Victor—Ed's father.
     "I pulled this out of the safe," says Ed Lezza. "It's something precious to us. I wanted to share it with you."
     Lezza displays a small notebook, filled with scrawled 75-year-old recipes, some jotted on the backs of Banco di Napoli Trust Company Bank deposit slips.
     "We keep exactly as my grandfather had written it," he says. "Everything the same."
     The bakery kitchen is charmingly old school—marble tabletops, a cedar-lined cooler. "You don't see them too much no more," says Louie Lezza, Ed's nephew and a fourth generation Lezza to make spumoni.
     Lezza spumoni is made up of five distinct "components." Four flavors of ice cream— chocolate, strawberry, rum and pistachio—with a whipped cream center studded with candied fruit and wheat germ bits (taking the place of chopped cashews, the rare change in deference to nut allergies)
     The spumoni production area seems impossibly small for a facility meeting the spumoni needs of 700 local restaurants and 24 states.
     "We're pretty close to outgrowing this plant," says Ed Lezza. "It's just a matter of time until we move into a large facility."
     Strawberry and pistachio are being mixed in two huge stainless steel vats. The flavors are complex—the strawberry has pineapple in it, seven different types of chocolate go into their chocolate.
     "We use the European-style blending," says Ed Lezza. "The pistachio isn't just pistachio."
     The completed, complex flavors are chilled to 21 degrees. At that temperature, they flow smoothly into containers, but don't bleed into each other. The flavors don't freeze because of the butterfat.
     "It's like anti-freeze," says Louie Lezza.
     The four ice cream flavors go in first, and then the burst of whipped cream at the center, which demands a special serving style for spumoni.
     "Spumoni must be sliced," says Ed Lezza. "You slice it, you have all five characteristics in every slice."
     Feeding four cups at a time under a filling machine is a bearded worker wearing purple latex gloves. I'm surprised to find he's Ed's son, Ed Lezza Jr., 38.
     I suggest that it's unusual for an owner of a business to work the packing line.
     "It's in my heart," he says. "I want to make sure it's right. It's my baby."
     He is also national sales manager. Customers are sometimes surprised when he delivers shipments of spumoni.
     "We do everything," Ed Lezza Jr. says. "It's a service-oriented business."
     Speaking of service, he is also a Bellwood village trustee. I ask: how's Bellwood doing?
     "We're holding our own," he says. "We're having our own new Metra station coming to Bellwood with 900 parking spots."
     And indeed, the neighborhood around Lezza's, including my wife's old house at Park and Frederick, looks well-tended and inviting. Driving north on Mannheim Road, snaking my hand into the big white cardboard box of Lezza's cookies sitting on the seat next to me, the future brightens. Things change and institutions crumble, so we need to pause, now and then, to appreciate what has not changed, the good things that are still with us.
      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Sept. 7, 2009

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Just exactly what, or make that 'who,' is Bill Daley hoping to make great again?

"Portrait of Two Young Men," by Giovanni Cariani, Louvre Museum, Paris

     When Bill Daley told my colleague Mark Brown, "but to be mayor, that would be the greatest," what exactly did he mean? The greatest for whom?
     For the city of Chicago? Did Daley mean that once he is sworn in as mayor, Chicago will begin enjoying a period of greatness: more jobs, less crime, better race relations?
     Make Chicago Great Again.
     And if he meant that, what is he, Bill Daley, bringing to the table that will usher in this new epoch of greatness?
     "Daley offered no specific solutions to the city's most vexing problems," Brown wrote. "Saying he plans to spend much of his campaign listening to voters for their ideas."
     Ah. I see. Chicagoans are supposed to tell Daley what he should do, how he should solve Chicago's laundry list of city-killing woes. And then, stout-hearted fellow that he is, Bill Daley will do those things, and greatness will ensue.
     Or gee, could it possibly be that when Daley said "to be mayor, that would be the greatest," he meant it would be the greatest for him? That it would great for Bill Daley, and other folks named Daley, to have another Daley in the office that two Daleys have already held for, umm, 43 of the past 63 years?
     Could he really mean that?
     He could.
     The thing is, I like Bill Daley, and I'll tell you why...

To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Holy Wah!

Stubb's bartender Jen, center.

     Moonshine Mike wasn't at home—his truck was gone—so we slid by Stubb's, a watering hole on the main drag in Ontonagon, Michigan, to check on his whereabouts.
     "I haven't seen him in two days," said Jen, giving the impression that this was an unusually long stretch for him not to make an appearance at the bar.
     A phone call was placed. Mike was found, notified of our location and interest, and was heading this way.
     In the meantime beers were ordered for my friends, an O'Doul's dusted off for me. Spirits were high—Kentucky was kicking the tar out of its opponent, 33 to 3.
     "Holy wah!" laughed Jen.
     I chewed on that for a while. Curiosity can be unappreciated in a stranger. Better to listen in silence. But the etymologist in me couldn't be restrained.
     "'Holy wah,'" I mused, trying to seem cheery and not intrusive. "That's a new expression for me. What does it mean?"
     "I don't know; it's a yooper thing," she said— "yooper" as in "UPer," meaning Upper Peninsula, the northern segment of Michigan. "I'm from Kentucky."
      The online Urban Dictionary offers a definition:
    A regional phrase known in Northern Michigan, used to express excitement, surprise, awe, and more. Much like the use of "dude", "Holy Wah" can express many different things, depending upon context and tone of voice.
       The derivation of "wah" eludes me—one online source speculates it is a corruption of "wow"—and gets in the way of a more intriguing question: why is there an Upper Peninsula at all? An unusual arrangement, a state in two big chunks, with almost a third of Michigan's territory—29 percent—in the UP, though only 3 percent of its population.
     The answer lies in perhaps the least-enigmatically-titled book of all time, "How the States Got Their Shapes," by Mark Stein. 
      The mitten of Michigan began to take shape with the Treaty of Paris, ending the Revolutionary War in 1783, Stein explains, cutting a border with Canada through the Great Lakes. Michigan's southern border was set by the 1787 Northwest Ordinance, which envisioned a straight line from Lake Michigan's southernmost tip to Lake Erie. 
     When this came to actually doing this, not with a line on a map, but in messy reality, however, the official would have carved the thriving ports of Gary from Indiana and Toledo from Ohio, which objected, strenuously, pressuring Congress to tilt Michigan's southern border slightly northward at its easter edge.
     "Michigan was less than pleased," Stein writes. "But lacking the population that Ohio had, and still needing congressional approval for its own statehood, there wasn't much it could do. Then Indiana got into the act."  
      Indiana was unwilling to give up Gary, and be left with a geometric point of lake access. So it too pressed Congress, which dutifully carved off another slice of Michigan, leaving Michigan with the two-stage, slightly tilted southern border it has today, and an insult more than the the Wolverines could stand. 
    They went to war. 
     The "Toledo War" of 1835 was brief and bloodless, and involved shots being fired into the air and the Michigan territorial militia seizing nine surveyors working for Ohio. The end result was Congress offering Michigan the Upper Peninsula and statehood in return for the "Toledo Strip," a deal Michigan voters at first rejected, then later approved, in essence, because they had to.
    I think that's enough Michigan history for one day. Leaving the bar, we returned to Moonshine's house where, circumstances dictated that I fire a .22 rifle out his garage window and, later, tentatively apply a lumberjack's cant hook to an enormous cedar log, which some friends and I maneuvered quite handily, they providing the brawn, me providing the supervisory skill. 

Monday, September 17, 2018

Bereaved mothers find solace, purpose in donating their milk

Kate Weidner, at home in Oak Park, in the rocking chair she bought to nurse Everett.

     Today's column came from asking a basic question. In mid-July, I was researching this column on the United States cravenly coddling formula producers by pulling out of a global accord on the importance of breast-feeding. I was talking to Summer Kelly, the head of the local milk bank, in Elk Grove Village, and asked, "So who donates to your milk bank?" This column is a result of asking that question.

     Not every pregnant woman who gives birth in a hospital comes home with a baby.
     Six out of every 10,000 women deliver a child in the United States only to have their newborn die during childbirth or shortly afterward.
     One of them was Kate Weidner, 35, of Oak Park.
     "My husband works in architecture. We have a 3-year-old son, Gus," said Weidner. "We got pregnant with our second son. He was due in October of 2017. I was diagnosed with a really, really rare condition, vasa praevia. The baby's umbilical cord didn't attach, and some of the veins and arteries are left vulnerable. If I went into labor, he would die instantly."
     The plan was to have a C-section at 34 weeks, to give the baby as much time to develop but still two weeks before labor, with its fatal complications, was to begin.
    That almost worked.
     "At 33 weeks, two days, I started gushing blood—a hemorrhage," Weidner said. "I knew right away what was happening."
     An ambulance rushed Weidner to West Suburban Medical Center. She had a crash C-section, but the baby, whom they named Everett, was in very bad shape.
    "None of his functions were functioning," Weidner said. "His heart wasn't circulating blood."
    Her husband was in California on business, got back to Chicago just in time for them to be together, briefly.
    "We were able to be with him and hold him," she said. "We started the process of being a family. My first son was so easy ... this was the absolutely worst thing that could happen."
    The next day, Everett Weidner died.
    A new mother's body doesn't know her baby is dead. Since the 18th week of pregnancy, her system has been getting ready to feed her new child. After birth, progesterone levels drop triggering the production of milk.
     "I breast-fed my first son and loved the experience," Weidner said. "I had intended to breast-feed my second son..."
    Her milk was here but her baby was not. A counselor at the hospital instructed her in techniques to dry up her milk.
     "It's funny," Weidner said. "No one told me about milk donation. I don't know how I knew about it. I learned when I was planning the C-section, I knew donor milk was an option, but didn't know who donated it, never suspected I would become one who would be a milk donor."
     Some two dozen mother's milk banks are scattered around the country. The majority of milk collected goes to premature infants in hospital intensive care units; most of their donors are women who have expressed more milk than their babies need, though some are in Kate Weidner's situation.
     "Ten percent of our donors are bereavement donors—women who have lost their babies," said Summer Kelly, RN, executive director of the Mothers' Milk Bank of the Western Great Lakes. "It really helps with the grieving process."
     Nursing releases Prolactin, a hormone that can lesson symptoms of depression. It also gives grieving mothers something to do.

To continue reading, click here. 

Sunday, September 16, 2018



        I admit. At no point during the rest of the year do I think, even once, "What I really need right now is some deer jerky."
     Yet driving up to Ontonagon, on the shores of Lake Superior, it feels not only natural, but necessary to stop in Slinger, Wisconsin, at Held's Meats and Cheeses, to pick up a pound or two. 
     Tradition is a stern task master.
     There was a twist this year, as we walked through the door, my buddy whispered to me. 
     "That guy's carrying a gun."
     That he was. A very large man in a yellow shirt. A revolver, by the look of it, shoved in the right pocket of his capacious blue shorts.
     It wasn't a big deal. I joined the queue at the case, considered my cheese options, then ordered what I always do. About a pound of the deer jerky, the regular, not the spicy 
     "The thick part if you can."
     The thick part is softer. Just enough for our weekend at the lake—my wife gave me strict instructions not to bring any home. My older son once said it tastes, "like a burned down house."
     My eyes did glance to the butt of that revolver, and I snapped a photo, to share here.
     I've been coming to Held's for years, unarmed, and never felt imperiled. Obviously this guy feels differently. He has the need to go around packing, not only at Held's but, I imagine, everywhere else he goes.
      So why is he the tough guy, in the eyes of many, the proud American exercising his God-given right to carry a weapon everywhere? While I'm the cringing weenie, taking my chances on the mean streets of Slinger—well, the parking lot of Held's, I can't say I actually set foot on a street in Slinger, assuming such things exist.  
     Which of us has more faith in the nation? In our fellow citizens? In the police? In the rule of law?
     No need to answer. We each have our answers and stick with 'em. 
     Not really my business. This guy is endangering himself more than me or anyone else, and I suppose whatever person who might get shot when he reaches into his pocket for some breath mints and that gun tumbles out.
    It wasn't me, at least, not while I was there, gratefully accepting my white paper wrapped package and hurrying away with perhaps a little extra rapidity. Getting into the car, immediately unwrapping my prize in the car, carving off a generous chaw of jerky with my Gerber LST folding knife. Which shows that I am not against going around armed, provided your weapon has a purpose, such as slicing up jerky. It really is very good jerky, and only $18.95 a pound. 

Saturday, September 15, 2018

The Saturday Snapshot #6

Photo by Nikki Dobrowolski

     Now as a photograph, Nikki Dobrowolski's shot of a beaver dam on Huzzy Lake does not rank up there with Ansel Adams' "Moon and Half Dome." Though it does has a certain solemnity and quiet power.
     Rather it was that it was a dam that caught my attention, first, because you just don't see dams much, Hoover notwithstanding. And second, it was a "dam" as opposed to "damn," which you see, or rather hear, all the time, including every day in the name of this blog.
     Which got me playing one of my favorite games: Which usage is older? Dam, the blockage of a body of water, or damn, with that silent "n" creeping in, the condemnation to hell's flame?
    Turns out to be something of a tie.
    The thing that beavers and functioning American governments make goes back at least 700 years, to Old Norse, dammr.
    And the condemnation goes back ... about 700 years, to the Old French damner, meaning to condemn, convict, blame, injure. The Latin damnare, "to adjudge guilty, to doom to condemn," is of course much older, but then the Norse predecessors of dammr could go back far too. Not a lot of written records to help us here.
    Anyway, speaking of beavers, I'm in the Upper Peninsula, with no idea what, how or if I'm going to be able to post anything tomorrow. We'll just have to see. You should be out enjoying this glorious weekend anyway. I sure am.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Target puts its customers on a pedestal


    My Friday column got bumped to Monday—the combination of an extra-long column and extra-tight space. And since I don't believe in scooping the paper on my blog, I'm running something else here today—this picture of a mannequin at Target.
     You'll notice that I didn't attached an adjective to "mannequin." I suppose "hefty" is safe. Target, the nation's sixth largest retailer, calls them "Plus Sized"—they've been rolling them out over the past few years, reflecting their expanded range of sizes.
      As a middle-aged male pundit, I guess I'm supposed to grab the drapery and howl—I suppose George F. Will will do that, eventually—I can't imagine the man shopping at Target, but Nordstrom's has them too, so maybe he'll notice them there.
     But in truth, I can't say I'm distressed by the mannequins—I mean, I noticed them, and took these pictures. But in a cold, clinical, and-so-the-world-turns way. We are an increasingly obese country, and as a person who has battled weight all my life, I know that individuals themselves fluctuate between struggle and surrender. Some days start with a grapefruit and determination, others with a donut and resignation. Why should society be any different? I, myself, err on the side of struggle—being fat sucks. But if you want to dive into morbid obesity with a shrug and smile, by all means, be my guest.
     Besides, mannequins are not the hill to die on. At least these have heads—as a child, I always found those slender, headless mannequins to be extremely creepy. My sister and I had a complicated fantasy where, if you were trapped in May Co. or Higbee's or Halle's when the store closed, the mannequins came to life and murdered you. I'm surprised nobody has used that as a premise for a horror film, but I am not well-schooled in the horror movie genre, so maybe someone already has.
     I do wonder about the efficacy of these mannequins. The purpose of showing off clothes, whether on a dummy in a store, or on a model in an ad, is to encourage the consumer to put down their cash and buy a particular outfit. I'm not saying using a curvy model, or a size-22 mannequin, won't work as well as the half-starved waifs and gaunt sticks that have been the general habit for the past half century. Heck, maybe reflecting women as they actually are might work better. (For some reason, men have not been granted this relief. I have yet to see thickset guy dummies at Target, nor beefy models on the cover of GQ. Maybe that's coming). 
    I could see them succeeding, catching the attention, and the dollars, of the consumer, relieved to see the full wide reflections of themselves. I also could see these stabs at pandering to the World As It Is as failing, by ignoring the aspirational aspect of fashion. Most people are not only heavy, they're plain-looking, but modeling clothes on average looking Joes and Janes, looking schlumpy and down-market—I just can't see that moving the merchandise. 
     To be honest, I've never seen clothing on a mannequin or in an ad, said, "Oh look!" and then bought it. So whoever these are designed to appeal to, fat or thin, it ain't me. The clothes I want are the clothes I've always worn, just newer, and less threadbare.