When we were on our way to Chicago, Gregg Pill prepared one of his famous spreadsheets with about five dozen different restaurants that he recommended we try during our 48 hours in town. At the top of the list was Freddy’s. Four of us ate there for a few hours. After that, all appetite was vanquished, for it is impossible in this place to do the proper restaurant-reviewer thing and have only a bite or two, thus preserving appetite for other dishes, other restaurants. At Freddy’s the food is too good not to binge. It is only a pint-size corner grocery store and everything is presented on paper plates or wrapped in foil in paper bags, and the only dining area is a covered sidewalk outside. Despite all that, the menu is huge and everything — everything! — on it is good.
To be accurate, there is no menu. The way you choose what to eat (assuming you aren’t a regular who already knows what you like) is to look at it all: endless pans and trays and pedestals of food all laid out helter-skelter on every available bit of counter space. There are pizzas thick and thin and calzones large and small, three kinds of chicken, pastas and arancini, vegetable salads, pasta salads, seafood salads, whole salamis, and loaves of beautiful, just-baked bread.
It isn’t quantity that makes choosing tough. This food is beautiful. Not glossy-magazine, too-perfect beautiful, but home-cooking-at-its-best beautiful. Strangely, despite the name of the place, pizzas may be the least interesting thing available. They are good ones with chewy, faintly charred crust and quality toppings, but compared to, say, the brilliantly citrusy lemon chicken or the ridiculously fluffy veal stuffed into rolled baked sheaves of eggplant or the gnocchi that are light as a cloud, the pizzas aren’t all that exciting. Any pasta with tomato sauce is fantastic – sweet and twangy – and the seafood salad is like a gust of fresh ocean air. And the bread that holds such sandwiches as eggplant parm or meatballs is crusty and chewy and impeccably fresh.
To top off a meal, owner Joe Quercia makes fruity and refreshing ices as well as what may be the best gelato we’ve had anywhere on this earth. It is smooth as topcream, rich but not the least bit cloying, intensely charged with whatever flavor is their essence, from hazelnut to fruits of the forest.
Selecting a meal is all the more challenging because Freddy’s is minuscule, crowded with interesting groceries, and every bit of floor space is occupied by customers eager to get their food. Behind the counter looks like chaos: a virtual battalion of Freddy’s employees taking and dishing out orders and communicating with hungry customers. There seems not to be a logic as to who among the staff behind the counter is helping whom on the other side, who to pay, and who’s presenting the food you ordered. Getting food is an exhilarating experience. Eating it is even more so.