Former Spiaggia chef and Top Chef season 15 winner Joe Flamm has revealed his next move after announcing his departure from the downtown Italian restaurant in August. He’s partnering with the owners of BLVD in Fulton Market on a Croatian-Italian restaurant in the same neighborhood.
Flamm wouldn’t reveal the address or name just yet. He said he’s waiting for the right moment to share. He did say the team is gunning for a summer 2020 opening.
Flamm’s wife, Hillary, is Croatian and the chef said he’s enjoyed eating the country’s food, whether it be with family or at places like the annual Velika Gospa festival at St. Jerome Croatian Catholic Church on the city’s South Side. Staff at the restaurant will cook lamb and beef in a charcoal hearth. It will also have plenty of pasta; Flamm said he couldn’t imagine a day without making noodles. At the same time, he’s eager to explore Croatian cuisine.
“It just feels like a story that really hasn’t been told yet through Chicago,” Flamm said.
Flamm foreshadowed a Croatian restaurant in May when Food & Wine published his Croatian risotto recipe. He had just returned from a trip there and the magazine asked for a recipe. Italian and Croatian food complement each other, as the Adriatic Sea separates Italy from the Balkans.
“I was pleasantly surprised when we were there to how much Croatian food complements the Italian culture,” said Frank Callero, co-owner of both BLVD and the company collaborating with Flamm on the new restaurant. “There are a lot similarities but also there’s a lot of unique spins on things.”
Callero, wife Kara Callero, and cousin Steve Zaleski are behind Sancerre Hospitality. Flamm’s restaurant will be Sancerre’s second. Frank Callero talked about how important it was to not be “caught in the growth loop” — the temptation to expand too quickly. Kara Callero formerly worked in public relations for Wagstaff and handled Spiaggia as a client. She’s maintained contact with Flamm through the years.
Frank Callero said the new restaurant is a “couple blocks away” from BLVD. Flamm emphasized the importance remaining in the West Loop/Fulton Market area. He worked at Girl & the Goat, helmed by fellow Top Chef champion Stephanie Izard; and at Urban Belly on the west end of Randolph Street Restaurant Row. The area comes with some of the priciest real estate in Chicago. Flamm admitted he didn’t think he would be able to afford a restaurant in the neighborhood.
“I never thought I’d own, as a South Sider, a downtown restaurant,” Flamm said. “Maybe I’d have a bar and grill eventually when I was 50, if I was a successful lawyer.”
Flamm and Callero didn’t reveal too much about the menu. Flamm spoke with Food & Wine about items such as the aforementioned black risotto with seafood. Other sample dishes could include grilled whole fish and pita-like sandwiches stuffed with lamb and beef sausage. Yes, that’s cevapcici, the wrap served at many Chicago summer festivals. Flamm plans to dive into menu development after he returns from another planned trip to Croatia later this year. Beverage wise, Flamm said he’s eager to serve Croatian spirits like sljivovica (plum brandy) and others.
Saturday is Flamm’s last day at Spiaggia. His mentor, Tony Mantuano, and staff — past and present — gathered over the weekend for a passing of the torch dinner. Former Spiaggia chef Missy Robbins attended. Eric Lees, one of Flamm’s close friends, will take over Spiaggia’s kitchen. He launches a new menu in October.
Chicago’s Croatian population is about 6,000, according to U.S. Census numbers from 2016. But at one point, in the mid-19th Century, Chicago was known as “the Second Croatian Capital.” Former Bulls star Toni Kukoc was known as the “Croatian Sensation” and helped the team win three titles in the ‘90s. Chicago has a handful of casual Balkan restaurants, like Beograd Cafe, but none coming with the fine dining experience that Flamm possesses.
Mantuano stressed the importance of creating a positive kitchen culture. Flamm also spoke with fellow Top Chef contestant Tyler Anderson, among others, for advice on opening a restaurant.
“The best advice people gave me — before going into it, really, really know what’s important to you,” Flamm said. “Know what are kind of your core values for the place and make sure you hold true to those.”
Come back later in the year for more information on what looks like one of Chicago’s most anticipated openings of 2020.