During my last trip to Chicago, my brother, Sam, and his friend, Jake, decided it was time to let me in on one of their closely guarded secrets. All I needed to hear was “breaded steaks” and we were in the car driving south through the city to a place they called Rico’s at 252 W. 26th Street. Let me set the stage for you: we’re in a Southside Chicago area called Bridgeport, parking below an overpass, entering a restaurant under a neon sign that says “Eat at Ricobene’s” and right below that – “Since 1946.” This is where I wanted to be.
My first impression as I walked in the front door is – this is exactly where I would take my family if I wanted to get shot at the end of a mobster movie. There were pictures of Chicago and Italians all over the wall from years past. There was the booth in the corner where I’m sure the big boss sat. Across from that though, I was surprised to see that the counter looked like it was part of a mall food court, which I have absolutely no problem with if they can meet the standards Sam and Jake had been promising to me.
We walked up to the counter and I perched myself beside my brother. I like to order food in the native tongue so I paid close attention to how he ordered our food and later had Jake correct me on the diction and intonation. When I go back my order will sound like this: “Breaded Steak with hot peppers and cheese, easy on the cheese and a Cherry Coke.” In layman’s terms: breaded steak with hot giardiniera and mozzarella cheese. The ‘easy on the cheese’ part is a survival tactic, because without that part, I got about as much cheese as I did anything else. The Cherry Coke was a late addition after Jake made yet another wise suggestion, “Don’t make the mistake of getting Flashin’ Fruit Punch because you’ll need to burp throughout the meal and you need something carbonated, so get a Cherry Coke.”
The preparation was quick and we were unwrapping these behemoths five minutes after we ordered them. I got anxious as I lowered my gaze to the silver bundle in front of me. I slowly took off the foil wrapping…more foil. I peeled away the second layer…Oh, Ricobene’s…what have you done? It wasn’t just a steak. How naïve could I have been? This was a sub, a monster-sized sub! Red gravy had bled all over the inside of the wrapper; I was staring down the barrel of a breaded steak, Gonnella French bread bazooka. Mozzarella cheese was spilling out of its gaping maw. I caught the reflection in one of my tears of hot giardiniera waiting in ambush. I looked at my brother as if to say, “et tu, Brute?” I did the only thing I could do. I began to remove this conjured apparition from the Earth bite by bite. The bread was super-saturated with the red gravy; my guess is they inject it directly into the loaves. The breaded steak played its part perfectly as the ringmaster and the hot giardiniera and mozzarella performed deliciously as the supporting cast.
It was a snapshot of my usual trips to Chicago. Mystery, surprise, fear, leap of faith, blackout, regret, acceptance…in that order. When I recovered from the food coma, I emotionally postponed the last two steps to find out what else Ricobene’s had to offer. Jake was enjoying an order of hot fries that my brother and I named Murder Mountain because of its striking resemblance to a mountain that could, in fact, murder someone. The fries were made with peanut oil, the buffalo sauce was filthy-good, and as far as hot fries go, I was down. Another great choice offered at Rico’s is the Vesuvio, which consists of breaded chicken, garlic butter, onions, tomato, and lettuce. Jake had ordered one of these for his mom. The rest of the menu highlights include hot wings, a buffalo chicken sandwich, a pizza puff, zucchini sticks and deep dish pizza by-the-slice.
Ricobene’s was an eye-opening experience for me. I had overrated my food knowledge and exposure only to have a breaded steak sandwich slap me in my drool-covered face. It completely caught me off guard. I’ll warn you though, the hearty meal isn’t for the health-minded or dieters. But, if you let yourself go for regularly scheduled Italian food binge-fests like the rest of us, give Ricobene’s a try. The breaded steak sandwich alone will knock your socks off and as you’re bending over to put them back on, the rest of the menu will pull your shirt over your head and knock you out like only a Chicago native could.
By: Joey Rovinsky