When I was a kid, my parents would sometimes drop all three of us rambunctious kids at my grandmother's house in Cicero so they could...well, get away from us. If there was an event to be attended, a date to be shared, or a load of massive errands, we would head over to grandma's to eat Falco's Pizza and drink Diet Rite out of little mason jars while playing gin rummy (minus the gin, of course) with the extended family. My grandmother Ann, great aunt Mae (whom I'm named after), and my great uncle George all lived together for almost all of their lives, and I can still smell Aunt Mae's Thanksgiving stuffing baking upstairs in the second kitchen. My grandma's house was one of those unique two-flat WWII-era structures that was full of drafty corners and fun places for kids to hide. The alleyway was a frequent hangout as well, and if we were lucky, my grandma would give us money to get Italian lemonade at Freddy's Pizza right down the block.
The old neighborhood in Cicero. These unique houses never fail to bring an odd feeling of familiarity when I visit Berwyn/Cicero (hey Svengoolie fans: BERRRR-WYN).
Over the years, I've come to realize what a significant role Freddy's played in my childhood since every visit to grandma's house was accompanied by a big scoop of Italian lemonade and the rather exciting endeavor of sucking on the lemon seeds before spitting them out. My brother told me once that if I swallowed the seeds I would grow a lemon tree in my tummy, and that apprehension carried into later years when I was scared to eat pomegranate seeds for fear of a giant fruit tree emerging from my body. I was a little impressionable.
The famous Freddy's. An understated, small establishment for sure, but food this good doesn't need frills.
The original Freddy retired years ago, and Joe Quercia expanded the tiny lemonade and grocery store to include homemade Italian dishes that in my father's words are like "a trip back to Italy." This is high praise coming from my father, whose very refined palate has always been somewhat of an inspiration to me (he's the right kind of picky). Dad also mentioned Freddy's had just recently been reviewed on WTTW's Check Please, a show that I grew up watching and that I often return to before a visit to get the culinary Chicago scoop. This is also the show I recommend to those visiting Chicago, and I just found out they've been archiving some of their spotlight pieces--for the Check Please! edition on Freddy's, see here.
My mom, dad, Ian and I piled into the car on a Saturday afternoon ready to be blown away as always, and we weren't disappointed. The inside is quite cramped due to the groceries that surround waiting customers, but I loved scouring through the many different imported pastas and Italian goods whilst I waited.
When it came time to order, Ian picked the sausage, potatoes and peppers, I chose the gnocchi in creamy vodka sauce, my dad devored penne with peas in a vodka red sauce, and my mom chose the chicken piccata. We all shared a slice of thick crust sausage pizza, and my mouth was in heaven with the fresh fennel seeds (*see note at bottom of post*). I would give you all the Italian names for these dishes, but I always end up misspelling in Italian even if I can pronounce them with finesse (a little embarrassing for a PhD student in English!).
Gnocchi and Piccata
Pizza and Penne
Sausage, potato and peppers
After lunch, we headed back inside to where the sweet gelato and tart Italian lemonade of my childhood waited for us. Ian and I shared a pistachio gelato, which was fantastic, but I would recommend to others my absolute favorite, tartufo (chocolate with hazelnuts). Of course, you can't go wrong with any of the gelato flavors at a place voted Best Gelato in Chicago!
I snuck a bite of the Italian lemonade from my dad's dish, and it was just as I remembered. I still didn't swallow the lemon seeds.
**Note: Fennel seeds are a must in any Italian sausage coming out of Chicago. In fact, many pizza sauces in Chicago (the ones that are worth eating--so stay the hell out of Lou Malnati's, Uno's or any other tourist trap) also include a subdued but fantastic fennel finish. If you order any Chicago pizza, don't get the deep dish. It's overrated, most people I know never ordered it, and it's the easiest way to throw up your "I'm a tourist! Take advantage of me!" flag. I know many people are into pepperoni or cheese or any of the California-inspired alfalfa sprout/artichoke varieties, but go for the sausage slice if you want a true taste of Chicago. If you see whole fennel seeds in the sausage, you've got a good slice.