The owners of Pisolino were among the first to pivot — yes, that seemingly archaic buzzword from 2020 when COVID struck — and transform their Italian restaurant into a market and takeout operation. Begrudgingly, they partnered with third-party delivery couriers and found the same frustrations critics have lamented. They even expanded closer to downtown and opened a short-lived food stall inside Time Out Market Chicago in the hopes they could attract more customers.
But it wasn’t enough to save the business. The acclaimed Italian restaurant will close on Saturday, September 24.
“We were just really, really struggling in terms of sales,” says co-owner Rachel De Marte, adding: “[Six] years into this and we came to the realization that we have tried everything that we can.”
When she and her then-husband, chef James De Marte, opened the restaurant in 2016, at the Elston, Belmont, and California intersection, they had visions of serving top-notch pastas, authentic pizza, and rare wines in a cozy neighborhood restaurant. Chef De Marte had trained in Italy for 11 years and was eager to show off what he learned back to Chicago. But when COVID hit, they quickly moved. Rachel De Marte is an event planner and while indoor dining was deemed risky, she sensed her clients would want takeout. And so they ramped up carryout operations to serve them to adapt to times.
But even though a takeout operation requires less staff, an all-day market with sandwiches and lighter fare still needs workers, and it was a struggle to find people who wanted to work extended hours from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
The location, previously occupied by Pork Shoppe, has been a challenge in drawing customers for restaurant owners, something James and Rachel De Marte acknowledged. Many potential customers didn’t even know about the small parking lot it shared with the Beer Temple.
James De Marte adds that community and elected officials didn’t do enough to help — they expected new businesses to populate the quiet intersection. But the added traffic and customers never arrived. Both share disappointment in the stretch of Avondale. Pisolino is near 33th Ward Ald. Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez and 35th Ward Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa’s districts. Neither are part of the growing list of seven council members who are retiring.
However, one person who did support Pisolino was its landlord. James De Marte says Pisolino wouldn’t have survived for this long if it weren’t for the efforts of Steven Gallo. Landlords can make or break a restaurant, especially during the pandemic with lost revenue from the suspension of indoor dining. The De Martes are grateful and want to help Gallo find a new tenant.
For James De Marte, a fatal shooting that took place last year outside a shuttered bank branch across the street from the restaurant resonated with him. Instead of doing their best to lure a business that could provide synergy to the area, signs have gone up for a Circle K gas station will soon open in the vacant space. He says he’s exhausted.
“The aldermen really don’t care about the neighborhood,” James De Marte says. “I can’t figure it out — I don’t know why, and it’s just not me, it’s everyone I talk to.”
Following the closing, the De Martes will split as business partners. Rachel DeMarte doesn’t blame the restaurant as there were other marital challenges. She’ll focus on event planning; Pisolino’s demise has soured her on the restaurant business: “I just have a bitter taste in my mouth — and I’m a very upbeat, positive person all the time,” Rachel De Marte says. “I guess I’m disappointed a bit in the neighborhood and disappointed a bit in the industry.”
She’s confident in her ex-husband’s culinary skills, saying he’ll go off to do bigger things. Chef says he’s in talks to open a restaurant, likely with a market component, in the suburbs — they’re looking at Barrington and St. Charles. He says he needs some time to recover after seven years in Avondale.
“We did what we could,” James De Marte says. “But now it’s time to move on.”