Paul Stern, a longtime Oak Park resident with nearly four decades of restaurant experience, is bringing a menu filled with Jewish fare to the former home of Geppetto’s Restaurant, 113 N. Oak Park Ave.
Plans for the kosher-style restaurant were first announced in July 2021 and now, eight months later, eager residents are desperate to know when the highly anticipated restaurant will open its doors to the public.
“We are getting closer to opening every day” said Stern who expects to open “sometime” in April. “This is a 40-year-old restaurant, and I honestly underestimated the amount of work it would take to get this place ready.”
Opening a Jewish delicatessen has been a lifelong dream for the veteran chef and restaurateur, and he has no interest in rushing the process. Stern said he wants projects in the restaurant to be “done right” and has been hands-on in the process of bringing his delicatessen to life. Outside of plumbing and electrical work he, his family and Anthony Higgins, Fritzi’s future general manager, have handled the updates on their own.
“I am painting shelves today,” said Higgins, who has worked with Stern previously. “It sounds simple enough, but they have taken multiple coats of paint and I have had to replace all the screws. Everything has taken more work than we thought it would, but we want it done our way.”
The bulk of the work done in the space has been cosmetic, and stripping away four decades of wear and tear has rendered former pizzeria unrecognizable. Now, light floods into the 76-seat establishment thanks to three coats of bright white paint, modern grey wainscoting and a newly vaulted ceiling the front of the dining room.
The added height exposed two lunette windows, making the street-view windows an impressive architectural focal point. Green apple-hued upholstery covers the banquette seating and a bright blue bar anchors the back of the dining area. The bar will be used to serve coffee drinks made with hyperlocal Whirlwind Coffee and retro-style egg creams as well as wine and beer.
In the back of the house, Executive Chef Nick Labno and John Dalhstrom, consulting chef, are laying tile in the commercial kitchen in anticipation of churning out corned beef, matzo ball soup, kishke, brisket, chopped liver and lox.
The chefs are engaged in weekend cooking sessions to learn from Stern, who has wide repertoire of recipes he intends to bring to Fritzi’s. Stern spent 10 years developing the pastrami recipe he is passing on to his kitchen staff. The complex recipe requires the meat to be cured eight to 12 days using a dry cure with a blend of spices including black pepper, coriander and cloves before soaking, cold smoking, and steaming. Both Labno and Dahlstrom are eager to “see how all of this comes together.” Pastry chef Karianne Soulsby, has joined the team to bring sweet treats to Fritzi’s.
To cultivate interaction and communal atmosphere, customers will place orders “dim sum style” by checking off menu items on a card placed on the table. Menu items will come in two sizes and Stern hopes inexpensive tasting portions will entice hesitant diners to try menu items they may be unfamiliar with.
Stern is clear that he is building the restaurant he has always dreamed of opening, and while the menu will focus on Ashkenazi Jewish fare, he has added a few dishes to the menu that fall outside that purview. Expect Fritzi’s to serve up Jianbing—a Chinese street food made from a millet flour crepe, filled with egg, deep fried dough and drizzled with a duo of sauces.
“It’s on the menu because I like it,” said Stern with a chuckle. “There are no rules here.”
While Stern and Higgins are not rushing to finish the project, they are eagerly anticipating a day in the near future when they can welcome guests in to experience all that Fritzi’s Delicatessen promises to be. In the meantime, Stern encourages people to peer into the windows to check on their progress.