After a wilted England made a penalty-kicks Brexit from the final of the UEFA European Championship soccer tournament, Italy enjoyed a spectacular Sunday, July 11. Add in the muscular Berrettini in the Brits-free final of the Wimbledon tennis tournament and the European press felt justified in saying that sport had brought about a new era of confidence and patriotism for a nation that paid a terrible price in the early days of the COVID-19 crisis.
Sure, a few naysayers pointed to the ballooning Italian national debt (135% of its gross domestic product!) and various calcified economic inefficiencies in the Italian ways of doing government and business. But in recent days, it has felt like Italy is on its way to recovery, surer of itself and gaining confidence to become a more equal player within the European Union.
In Chicago, of course, we’re well-acquainted with the Italian diaspora and the contributions of generations of Italian Americans to this city. One of those Italian Americans (he was born in Kenosha but held two passports) was Tony Mantuano, the founder of the Magnificent Mile restaurant known as Spiaggia. That fine dining establishment announced in recent days that it was closing after a whopping 37 years on the corner of Michigan Avenue and Oak Street.
This page has rarely tended toward the sentimental over closures. Beloved businesses have their life spans, not unlike beloved people. When Macy’s renamed Marshall Field’s, we affirmed its right to do so and looked to the future, albeit with a note of sadness over the exit of an iconic Chicago institution.
We’re also aware that so-called closures can sometimes be negotiating tactics with either a landlord or a union. For example, Chicago’s iconic German restaurant The Berghoff “closed” with great media hoopla in 2006, but it turned out to be merely a shrewd “transition” to a new generation of owners. So maybe something is in play here from the owners of Spiaggia, the Levy Restaurants, even though the legendary Mantuano himself moved away from Chicago in 2019 following a 35-year stint in the Spiaggia kitchen. His famed colleague Joe Flamm has also moved on to new culinary adventures.
All those caveats aside, Spiaggia’s achievements as a pioneer in Chicago’s world-class dining scene were so singular as to merit historic notice.
Consider: Mantuano set up shop three years before the late Charlie Trotter opened his signature restaurant in Lincoln Park. Grant Achatz, the chef behind Alinea and Next, was only 10 years old in 1984. Chef Homaro “Omar” Cantu Jr., the late genius of molecular gastronomy, did not open his astonishing Moto in Chicago’s West Loop until 2003.
The Michelin-starred Spiaggia did not invent fine dining in Chicago, as fans of Le Perroquet on East Walton Street or Le Francais in Wheeling will attest. Great French chefs thrived here in the 1960s and 1970s. But a local case could be made that Mantuano did invent Italian fine dining in Chicago, influencing an entire nation. The restaurant was widely heralded as the best Italian restaurant in America. For decades.
Certainly, one former president of the United States would agree. On Nov. 10, 2008, the Tribune reported that then-President-elect Barack Obama had joined his wife, Michelle, at Spiaggia the previous night for their first dinner together since the election victory, even as a crowd watched from across the street. Reporters could not get much out of the discreet employees of Spiaggia, but it was well-known that the Obamas were regulars. In fact, this was their third time there that year.
Obama was smart enough to also herald his love of more humble food stands and local joints for public consumption in his memoirs and interviews, but his confidants knew that Spiaggia was his favorite restaurant in the world. He was especially partial to the scallops.
As time went on, the much-decorated Mantuano even found himself at the White House, becoming part of the so-called Diplomatic Culinary Partnership.
In 2016, Mantuano and Flamm cooked for then-Vice President Joe Biden, then-Secretary of State John Kerry and then-Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. Their lunch was part of the last state visit under the Obama administration. Mantuano, you might say, was there at the beginning and the end.
We have seen the end of many other less-fancy restaurants over the last year, of course, and we all have beloved places we mourn, Magnificent Mile or down the block.
Eateries are a crucial part of the fabric of the city and also often small businesses that need and deserve support.
And there’s reason to worry about that economic generator of a neighborhood that Spiaggia is vacating, given all the empty storefronts on Michigan Avenue. But none of that is Mantuano’s fault.
Spiaggia had a heck of a run and stood for Italian American excellence at every moment.
Grazie, Tony, and all who worked alongside you.
Join the discussion on Twitter @chitribopinions and on Facebook.
Submit a letter, of no more than 400 words, to the editor here or email firstname.lastname@example.org.