Sergio Lazzara is proud to be Italian, of course, but he takes a special pride in his Sicilian heritage.
“If you ask for directions in Rome, folks are friendly and efficient. You’re on your way in a minute or two,” he explains. “In Sicily, you’re talking for 20 minutes because they want to know your life story.”
That warm embrace can be felt in every menu item and decorative touch at Affresco, the pizzeria and lounge in Park Ridge that Lazzara opened in 2006.
A veteran of the restaurant business at only 35 years old, Lazzara began his culinary journey in grade school while helping out at Le Torre, the Palatine eatery owned by his parents, Giuseppe and Giovanna Lazzara. “I started out at the age of 10 making salads, and by the age of 16 I moved forward to pizzas and sautéing,” he recalls.
When his folks retired in 1996 and returned to Sicily, Lazzara tagged along, spending one of the best years of his life in his ancestral home of Altavilla Milicia. “I had already learned so much from my parents, and my uncle taught me even more,” he explains. “He showed me that absolutely anything can be made from scratch. You don’t have to buy it in a jar or a box.”
That lesson has been his mantra since he returned to the States, first opening Spuntino’s on Higgins Road in Park Ridge at the tender age of 21, and then reaching for the stars with Affresco. “We bake our own bread and make most of our pastas from scratch,” Lazzara assures, “and our freezer is just big enough to hold our gelato. Everything we do is fresh, high-quality and authentic.”
That authenticity begins with a pizza oven that was brought over from Naples and assembled, brick by brick, on the main floor of the two-story restaurant. “We either cook or complete most of our dishes in the oven because of the flavor and finish that it imparts,” he explains.
Chief among them are Affresco’s “Sicilian-American” pizzas, so called because they are thicker and breadier than the typical Neapolitan pie, and topped with a Chicago-style combination of fresh and brick mozzarella and provolone.
Affresco’s signature roasted chicken is another fan favorite. Why? “Because it’s so simple,” Lazzara notes. “Rosemary and garlic, lemon butter on top, and finished in the oven to a nice crispness.”
The menu also boasts a linguini pescatore in a delicate white wine marinara and a pillowy handcrafted gnocchi made with ricotta rather than potatoes. And no meal at Affresco is complete without cartocci, a delightfully decadent dessert that teams piping hot fried dough sticks with cool cannoli filling.
And the decor is just as warm and inviting as the menu. Walls of brick or Tuscan-style stucco are painted in rich earth tones. Italian lights dangle from the wooden beams of a soaring 14-foot ceiling. Century-old Mediterranean roof tiles double as wine racks. And the light fixtures above a black granite bar are capped with halved wine barrels.
A broad, open staircase with a wrought-iron railing ascends to a sheltered rooftop terrace that’s enclosed in the winter and open on the sides in the summer. And a private side room on the second floor can accommodate business and family gatherings of up to 15, with the entire restaurant available for private events of up to 200.
Carryout and catering are also available, classes in Italian cooking are regularly taught, and specialty menus are offered on St. Joseph Day, Easter, Mother’s Day and Christmas Eve.
After a quarter century in the restaurant business, does Lazzara ever tire of the long hours and blistering pace? Never.
“I love dealing with people, I love cooking, I love every aspect of the restaurant business,” he says. “Even after a crazy night when you’re so tired you can’t get up, you get up and do it again anyway because it’s a passion.”
11 N Northwest Hwy
Park Ridge, Ill. 60068