Friday, July 13, 2012

LET'S HAVE DINNER AT FANNY'S - Fanny Lazzar

Anyone who has lived in Evanston, Illinois for any length of time, has heard of the famed restaurants of yesteryear that are no longer around. Restaurants such as Vera McGowan's, The Dominion Room, The Main Cafe and its twin The Venetian Cafe, to name a few.  But there was always one Evanston restaurant that outshone all the others year after year.  A restaurant that was world famous and honored with awards from home and abroad but still the kind of place where the owner greeted you by name.  Of course I am talking about the one-and-only Fanny's Restaurant and its diminutive owner Fanny Lazzar.  I have mentioned in past entries that you cannot tell much about a person's fame or infamy from their tombstone.  Here's the tombstone of Fanny Lazzar at All Saints Catholic Cemetery in Des Plaines, Illinois:


You would never guess from looking at this simple tombstone that the woman buried here hob-nobbed with kings and princes and counted a host of Hollywood personalities as her personal friends.  What made Fanny's Restaurant a required stop for countless thousands from Mae West to President Dwight D. Eisenhower to Louis Armstrong to Charleton Heston as they passed through Chicago every year?  Was it her world famous bottomless spaghetti bowl?  Was it her folksy personality that made you a member of the family after one visit?  We'll look at the facts and decide for ourselves.


Fanni Bachechi was born February 4, 1906 to Ada Bachechi (nee Pieri) and Giuseppe Bachechi.  She was born at 26 N. Halsted Street in Chicago in the heart of the old Italian neighborhood.  Her father listed his occupation as "storekeeper".


26 N. Halsted is no longer in a residential area.  In fact, it is now the home of the WCIU TV studios.  I wonder if they know that such a famous person was born at that site more than 100 years ago?

By the 1910 Census the Bachechi family has moved to 911 Chicago Avenue in beautiful Evanston, Illinois.  4 year old "Fennie" has been joined by her sister Amelia and her brother Corrado.  Fannie's father Giuseppe is listed as a "confectionary merchant."  Also joining the Giuseppe Bachechi family at 911 Chicago Avenue was his brother Celestine, Celestine's wife and two daughters.  The whole clan lived together as was the custom of the time, especially among Italians.  911 Chicago Avenue in Evanston is now a parking garage for a bank. 

By the 1920 Census the Bachechi family is still in Evanston, Illinois, but they have moved "uptown" to 922 Davis Street.  

922 Davis Street, Evanston, Illinois

Giuseppe had now become "Joseph" and was a fruit merchant.  13 year old Fanny was "at school".  By the 1920 Census "Joseph" Bachechi and his wife Ada had become naturalized American citizens.

After Fanny graduated from high school she took a job as a clerk at Western Union, a busy place in those days of telegrams and "night letters".   In 1929, 23 year old Fanny Bachechi married 23 year old Henry (or Henri) Bianucci.  Henry worked for a local newspaper.

The 1930 Census has the young married couple living at 7721 N. Hermitage in Chicago's Rogers Park neighborhood.

7715-21 North Hermitage, Chicago, Illinois

In 1929 an event took place that would change the life of Fanny Bachechi Bianucci forever.  Fanny's father Joe Bachechi opened a small grocery store with a lunch counter at 1601 Simpson Street in Evanston.  It started out as a combination grocery/lunch counter but by 1935 the lunch counter was doing so well that Joe closed down the grocery store part and just concentrated on the lunch counter.  

In the meantime Fanny and Henry's marriage started to have problems. They had two children: Henry J. "Joe" Bianucci who was born in 1930 and John Thomas Bianucci (1935-2009) who was born in October of 1935.  Sometime in the late 1930s or early 1940s Fanny and Henry decided to end their marriage.  Henry Bianucci moved back to Clinton, Illinois where had been raised and lived there until his death in 1981.  

Now Fanny found herself a single mother with two boys to support in an era that was not kind to single or divorced mothers.  She decided to help her Dad with the lunch counter business.  Then one day in 1946 she had an idea.  Joe's health was failing (he was 72 in 1946) and he wanted to slow down.  Fanny told him of her desire to reopen the lunch counter as a full-fledged restaurant.  His advice to her "If you have to open a restaurant, open a restaurant for the rich."  So, on July 22, 1946, Fanny's World-Famous Restaurant, Society and Celebrity Center opened at the site of the former grocery and lunch counter and 1601 Simpson Street in Evanston.


Here's what happened next, according to her own story:

She had begun as a small café owned by her father, who emigrated from Italy. He served lunch to workers in what was then Evanston's industrial area. Fanny wanted to create a very special dinner restaurant. To this end, she spent long hours and countless recipe combinations to perfect for exquisite taste and digestability her salad dressing and spaghetti meat sauce. She used her own sensitive digestion as a guide to perfection, and history would later record she found it, in her Salad Dressing and Meat Sauce.

She wasn't sure what food to feature and other than herself had no cook. Being a religious woman, she prayed for help. Two days later there was a knock on the back door of the restaurant. When she answered, there was an African-American gentleman, Bob Jordan, who asked to see Mrs. Bianucci. Fanny asked what she could do for him, and Jordan answered, "The Lord sent me to be your cook." Fanny asked, "What do you cook?" and he answered, "The best fried chicken around!" Thus was born the fried chicken that helped make Fanny's Restaurant famous. He remained the Chef at Fanny's restaurant for 25 years.

Early on, Fanny asked one of her customers what his name was, and when he said Marshall Field III she admonished him "You should be ashamed of yourself for impersonating such a well known man as that." The next day a writer from the Chicago Sun-Times, owned by Field, came to the restaurant and told her he had sent her to write a story about it. Fanny, of course, apologized to Field, and they became fast friends. He promoted the restaurant not only through the newspaper, but among his wealthy friends on the North Shore. What developed was an unusual combination of a reasonably priced restaurant, serving outstanding food in modest surroundings.

Fanny insisted on using only the finest and freshest ingredients, but didn't believe in having an expensive building in a fancy neighborhood. She observed "Why the overhead . . . Let's put it in the food instead." Even though the restaurant was in an unfashionable part of town, the food was so good, and in no small part because of Fanny's enthusiasm and promotional skills, the restaurant flourished.

 
Fanny cooking her world famous spaghetti.  She never left the kitchen work entirely to her employees.

In 1948 something else happened that would change Fanny's life forever.  Here's the story from the Chicago Tribune's "Tower Ticker" column from April 9, 1949:

When Fanny met Pump Room Captain Ray Lazzar it was love at first sight.  When Ray visited Fanny's restaurant at 1601 Simpson Street, Evanston, and tasted her spaghetti and her salad dressing, it was love at first bite.  Fanny hedged on Ray's marriage proposal.  The handsome devil might just be after her restaurant. How was he fixed for finance?  Ray showed her!  He bought the building and the grounds on which the restaurant stands and which Fanny only rented and gave them to her for a wedding present!

Now Mr. and Mrs. Ray Lazzar, still keeping the name, Fanny's, run the most exclusive little 16 table restaurant in Chicagoland - dinners by reservation only!

Fanny serving her customers

As the fame of the restaurant grew, Fanny constructed additions on top of and next to the original building, and ultimately had 275 seats.  In 1948 J.L. Kraft of Kraft Foods tried to buy the recipe for her salad dressing for $75,000, but she refused to sell.  Because of the restaurant, Fanny herself became a celebrity, writing a column in the Evanston Review and other North Shore papers, and a book dealing with her outlook on life.

My Encounter With Fanny

Having grown up in Evanston, Illinois I knew who Fanny was, and all about her restaurant, even though my parents did not frequent the restaurant on a regular basis.  It seems that whenever Fanny ran into my mother, she announced to everyone within earshot:

This is Betty Kramer - we went to school together."  As my mother was quick to point out, "we may have been at school at the same time but we did not go to school together.  Fanny went to school with my (much) older brother."  
 
I used to read Fanny's column in the Evanston Review every week, as did most Evanstonians.  I decided that one of the items on my "bucket list" (before we knew what a bucket list was) was to get my name in Fanny's column.  How I was going to do this, I didn't know.  Mentions in Fanny's column (as with her friend Irv Kupcinet and his column) only went to the rich and famous.  When I was in college, my psychology class decided to have their year-end dinner at Fanny's.   They settled us in upstairs (where all the big groups went) and started serving her delicious food.  

Now was my chance.  I excused myself and went back downstairs. There was Fanny, looking like a china doll.  She was dressed and groomed to perfection and at 5' 10" I towered over her.  I approached.  "Can I help you?" she asked.  I told who who my parents were.  "Oh yes, I went to to school with your mother."  My mother was not there to correct her (and I wanted something from Fanny) so I said, "Yes, she always mentions that when your name comes up."  She beamed.  "What can I do for you?"  I decided the truth was the best strategy.  I told her I was a faithful reader of her column and my lifelong dream was to get a mention in her column.  "Hmmm" she responded and reached around for a huge book filled with celebrity names and notes.  She picked up a pencil and began jotting in the book.  "We'll see," she said.  I thanked her profusely and left her presence walking backward as if she were the Queen of England.  Well, she was once named "Queen of Evanston".  Did Fanny come through for me?  Here's the result:


Well, she "stretched the truth" a little - I was not the host of the party, but it was her column, so she could write what she wanted.

Here are just some of the awards Fanny won in her illustrious career:
 
"World's most honored restaurant"
- Oldsmobile Rocket Circle Magazine

She was the Only woman in the world to receive from the Italian Government the Gold Medal "Stella Della Solidarieta" for outstanding achievement.
International Award 1955
Epicurean Magazine International Award
The Only Restaurant in America honored by two governments for outstanding achievement.
U.S. Government "Voice of America' told story of "Fanny's" throughout the World.
National Award 1951
Who's Who of American Women 1964
Butter Institute Award 1956
American Dairy Association Award
Gold Butter Knife Award 1957
National Restaurant Association Award 1957
World Who's Who in Commerce and Industry 1965
McCall's Magazine Citation 1956
Ford Times Treasury of Famous Eating Places Citation 1948
Roquefort Foundation of France Award 1965
Avocado Industry of California 1966 Award
Fanny's spaghetti sauce won an international award, as did her salad dressing.
Gourmet Magazine Citation
This Week in Tokyo, Japan Citation 1965
Epicurean Magazine International Award
Carte Blanche Chef Award and Special Citation 1966
Written up in more than 160 newspapers and magazines throughout the world.
U.S. Congressional Record 1956
Carte Blanche Epicurean Award for dining excellence 1965
Fanny's was recommended by the internationally famous restaurants Leoni's of Soho, London, LaTour d'Argent of Paris, Tre Scalini of Rome as one of the seven most famous restaurants in America.
Grand Prix D'Excellence 1975 - London, England by the International Epicurian Society
Fanny's was one of only five Chicago restaurants mentioned in "Outstanding Restaurants of America" published by Simon and Schuster
 
By 1987 she was in her 80s, in declining health, and her husband, Ray Lazzar, had died (1984).   Fanny closed the restaurant for its usual August vacation, but decided not to reopen. Since she always lived above the restaurant she also had to find a new home after all those years.  Fanny chose the North Shore Retirement Hotel.

The North Shore Retirement Hotel, Evanston, Illinois

Asked how she was enjoying her retirement, her son responded "Not as well as when she ran the restaurant."

Fanny Bachechi Bianucci Lazzar passed away several years later on May 8, 1991.
 
After Fanny closed her restaurant and sold the building, it changed hands several times but never reopened as a restaurant.  Now known as Fanny's Lofts it is an upscale condominium development in Evanston.  Oh, if those walls could talk!

1601 Simpson Street, Evanston, Illinois

Fanny's spaghetti and salad dressing are still sold by her family.  Here's the spaghetti box which will show you what the inside of her restaurant looked like:
 


Fanny was often criticized for refusing to change.  She realized early on that one thing people were looking for was consistency.  Fanny knew that people came to her restaurant in 1980 knowing they would get the same fabulous food, great service and reasonable prices they got in 1950.  To Fanny Lazzar, quality was something that never changed.  

Don't ever forget Fanny's Motto:  "Spaghetti without cheese is like a kiss without a squeeze."

May she rest in peace.

6 comments:

  1. Okay. Loved the blog post! So, where can I get me some of Fanny's famous salad dressing? Got to try it! : )

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    1. You can order Fanny's Salad Dressing and her Spaghetti Sauce at http://www.fannysofevanston.com/main.htm
      You will love it! I have some of the frozen spaghetti in my freezer right now. A product that is as good as the hype!

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  2. They used to carry the sauce at Dominics Foods - I bought a couple of "bags" about a few years back when I spotted it and cooked it about a month ago. Tasted great and brought back memories - we celebrated many, many birthdays at Fanny's and rarely left before closing time. My Grandpa, Julian (JB) Bachechi, who passed in 2005, was related...

    Thanks for a great post.

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  3. What a great post, Jim!! Our family went to Fanny's for the most special occasions when I was a girl. Today, I've spent quite a while trying to find an old scrapbook with a photo in the Evanston Review, showing my family sitting at one of the red checkered table cloths celebrating my sister's eigth birthday. (I won't rest now until I find it!) One of the funniest memories I have was in my senior year of high school, after having become a finalist in the Miss Illinois Pageant. Before the pageant we were treated to a huge meal at Fanny's. I remember wondering how that was going to work out for us during the swimsuit competition. It's great to think about Fanny....always looking stunning with her red lipstick, dressed to the nines. She was a star, and had as much grit as she did style. For those looking to find her famous sauce, you can find it at Treasure Island in Wilmette. Thanks for sparking such great memories!

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  4. You couldnt have said it better! I too grew up in Evanston and we went to Fanny's on a fairly regular basis.

    Jim you wrote this from the heart of all Fanny's customers. Customers? more like friends. She made EVERYONE feel welcome.

    Thank you!

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  5. Amazing. ..I just finished reading an article she wrote for guideposts magazine years ago and decided to look her up. .. wow I had no idea she was so amazing. .. wish I could have met her. ..When I get to heaven I'll have to look her up and let her tell me about her life. .. wish I could have met her when she was still alive

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