After a decade, Tocco — the Italian restaurant along Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park — is closing. Owner Bruno Abate confirmed that he’s planning to shutter the restaurant and open a suburban replacement. He converted a former McDonald’s into a stylish Italian restaurant and patio that opened in 2008. The restaurant should shutter in March at 1266 N. Milwaukee Avenue.
Abate said business is strong in Chicago, but the restaurant needs upgrades (like a new stove). The cost of those upgrades, plus increasing rent and labor costs, has Abate wanting a fresh start. He plans to open the suburban location in April at 507 Chestnut in Winnetka. This one will have a space for a market area and will serve pizza al taglio. Wicker Park will close in coordination with Winnetka’s opening.
“I’m going to stay away from the city a little bit,” Abate said.
If all goes well, Abate wants to open a scaled-down version of Tocco in Chicago sometime in 2019. He’s not committing, saying he’s about “90 percent sure.” The immigrant from Naples, Italy native wants to open a space for authentic food and affordable glasses of wine. Abate is a Chicago restaurant vet. He opened Follia in 2001 on Fulton Market inside the space where Next Restaurant eventually opened.
“I’ve read articles that say Publican was the first pioneer on Fulton Market and that’s not true — it’s false,” Abate said. Publican opened in 2008.
Big restaurant groups, like Publican’s parent One Off Hospitality (which own Violet Hour, Anker, Dove’s Luncheonette, Big Star in Wicker Park) make things difficult for independents like Abate, he says. They can open concepts quicker. Take Boka Restaurant Group and Stephanie Izard. They opened a Chinese restaurant (Duck Duck Goat) in 2016 and now plan a Peruvian spot (Cabra).
“The big corporations, they have the ball in their hands,” Abate said. “I’m Italian, I cannot do Korean tomorrow.”
In a Tribune story about increased labor costs, Abate announced the pending shutter and mentioned increased competition. Workers are bouncing around different jobs more and more, Abate said, and employee loyalty is waning. More restaurant workers also want daytime hours. That makes restaurants which don’t serve breakfast or lunch, like Tocco, less attractive to workers. The costs of restaurant labor — including tipping, benefits, and sick leave — are all hotly debated topics.
In May 2017, Abate appeared on 60 Minutes to tout Recipe for Change, a program for Cook County jail inmates where he helped train them for their lives after release. He hired some of those former inmates to work at Tocco. Abate will soon expand the program with a women’s division. He spends every Monday talking with clients at the jail.
Tocco still has a location at O’Hare International Airport. In a side note: One thing that Abate won’t miss in Chicago is the city’s rodent problem. The restaurant, according to city data, was last inspected in 2017 and hasn’t been cited for rodent-related problems. He takes great pride, but it also takes a lot of effort. Abate said he’s frustrated by the city’s slow response when he asks for rat-related clean up.
Meanwhile, stay tuned for news on Abate’s projects. He’s confident more vacant restaurant space will be available next year in Chicago’s over-saturated restaurant market.