The last few days I’ve been haunted by Arrested Development’s George Oscar Bluth’s ominous line: “I’ve made a huge mistake.”
And I’m not the only one who thinks that: “All the blame on this is going back to you,” Jim Graziano tells me during an interview on Monday afternoon.
On Fat Tuesday, February 21, J.P. Graziano, the beloved sandwich shop that grew out of an Italian grocer along Randolph Street in the West Loop, will sell a Chicago first, combining two foods that inspire a tremendous amount of civic pride: Chicago, meet the giardiniera paczki. There’s no preordering and they’ll come in two varieties: chocolate custard and vanilla custard. They’ll be made at Il Giardino Del Doche, an Italian bakery in Montclare. While flavors like custard, Boston cream, cannoli, and ones with fruit preserves will be available at the bakery, the giardiniera varieties will only be sold at Graziano’s in West Loop.
This isn’t an early April Fool’s joke. Graziano says the “sweet heat” from Chicago’s favorite pickled condiment, a natural companion for pizza and Italian beef, makes these winners, especially with the chocolate version. It reminded me a little bit of Mexican hot chocolate. Now, I know you might be thinking: who actually asked for this? And I’ll apologize, dear reader: It was Ashok all along.
These machinations were hatched over text messages over the course of four weeks and made possible by Graziano’s willingness to try something new and the patience of his friend, Enzo Ventrella, the proprietor of Il Giardino.
Paczki Day is a Mardi Gras tradition for many cities with large Polish populations, but it’s really crossed over to the mainstream in the last few years with bakers from different cultures offering their own interpretations of the holeless doughnuts. Some of them border the absurd. A few years ago, American Coney, one of Detroit’s famous hot dog chains, created a paczki hot dog. Maybe some were turned off by the hybrid; I was jealous. So, as Eater Chicago planned its editorial calendar for February, I threw a dart in the dark and texted Graziano on Tuesday, January 17.
“Wonder if anyone has done a giard paczki,” I texted. “Please tell me you are.”
“Ha. No. TBH. Not sure if that would work, but you got me thinking about giard potato pancakes,” Graziano replied.
Graziano let the idea marinate for a few days, worried that the oil from the giardiniera would ruin the paczki before deciding to make my dream a reality: “It’s not a gimmick, this matches the standards for anything I sell at the store,” he says.
Let’s be clear: These treats are made with Graziano’s Hot Giardiniera seasoning, a spice blend the store began selling in January 2022. Customers won’t be biting into chunks of carrots or onions as they sink their teeth into one of the special paczkis. The powder packs a surprising punch and Graziano has been sending samples to a few folks to experiment with including Esme chef Jenner Tomaska, who uses it in his giant Cheeto appetizer; and Jonathon Sawyer, chef at Kindling inside the Willis Tower.
“I didn’t know what to expect, to be honest,” Ventrella says. “Then, when I tasted it, I was like, this is not that bad.”
There were some mishaps in the test kitchen: “The French cream wasn’t great,” Ventrella adds. “But that’s what experimentation is about.”
Ventrella’s father, Mario, was among the immigrants who helped make Harlem Avenue on the Northwest Side a hub for Italians. Paczki has never been a big part of their business, but they began making them a few years ago to compete with demand. He uses bomba as inspiration.
“I’m not stealing something from them, it’s our thing,” says Ventrella. “The only thing I am stealing is the name and that’s more of a marketing thing because if I call it a bomba, nobody cares about bomba.”
While Paczki Day isn’t super busy for Ventralla, he’s gearing up for St. Joseph’s Day on Sunday, March 19, when the bakery will be busy selling zeppole. Easter is another busy time for the bakery.
Graziano sees potential with the seasoning, working on sausages and other products. Giardiniera is an Italian American condiment that bridges cultures. There’s even a throwaway line on HBO’s Southside, a comedy about Black Chicago. The writers bring in rapper Vic Mensa to help prove giardiniera was invented by Black man. The implication is: How could a white person create something that packs the proper punch?
J.P. Graziano’s, because the family owns their property, is one of the last independent restaurants able to operate along Randolph Street where real estate prices have soared. Keeping Italian traditions alive is important for Graziano and Ventrella. Sure, there are missteps — Graziano doesn’t like when the Potbelly chain calls cherry peppers giardiniera, but overall, it’s fun to make paczki and find new ways to share flavors with customers.
“It’s kind of nice to see our culture out in a Potbelly’s, to hear it on the Southside talking about giardiniera, It’s pretty cool,” Ventrella says.
Graziano and Ventrella aren’t sure if this will be an annual Fat Tuesday tradition, but they want to hear feedback.
In a strange turn of events, on Tuesday morning, WGN morning crews were filming outside my home for a Valentine’s Day segment in which a couple got engaged on live TV. It was a chaotic scene, where former-Gov. Rod Blagojevich appeared. Among the crew was Cheyenne Ford, a worker at The Wiener’s Circle. Having leftover paczkis from the day before, I asked if she wanted one, and she accepted my most Chicago Valentine’s Day offering.
Maybe I have nothing to apologize for after all.
Giardiniera Paczki at J.P. Graziano, 901 W. Randolph Street, sold on a first come first serve basis on Tuesday, February 21.