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He’s A Brick House

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10/07/2008

Oy26 Nosh1

Joey, in action

Joey’s Brickhouse
1258 W. Belmont
773.296.1300

When I called Chef Joey Morelli to see if I could interview him for this article, the first thing he did was propose. Upon discovering that he had gone to high school with a cousin of mine, and that the last name we share is my maiden name, his response was an enthusiastic “You’re single? Awesome! Now we can get married!”  For the record, having been to Joey’s Brickhouse on more than one occasion, usually for a pre-theater bite or a post-theater cocktail, always delightful, I was tempted to say yes.

Okay, for the record, it was more than the food—considering the last three blind dates I’ve been on, I was tempted to say yes and show up for the interview with a rabbi in tow. But I digress.

This enthusiasm for life is apparent in all aspects of Joey Morelli’s personality, and is at the heart of what makes his place such a success, and what keeps people coming back.

Joey was born in Chicago in 1970, son of an Italian father and a Jewish mother, and was raised in Highland Park. If ever there were two cultures that are opposite sides of the same coin, Joey thinks that Italian and Jewish are it. As he likes to say, both are steeped in traditions of family, food and bickering. His palate was trained early, some of his fondest memories of being at his grandmother’s elbow in the kitchen. He jokingly refers to visits with family being about “Having eight meals before you get to go home.” The Jewish holidays in his home were mostly secular, centered again on culinary traditions. The blending of the two traditions included decorating the Christmas tree one year with bagels and bialys as ornaments and a Star of David on top.

At home, in a twist that Joey recalls fondly, his dad was the one who made breakfast every day for the family, beautiful omelets and frittatas, and it was these recipes that Joey remembers as being his first forays into trying his own hand at cooking.

While a student at Highland Park High School, Joey worked at Beinlich’s, the HP staple Sunset Foods and as a dishwasher at JB Winberie’s. After completing a degree in Speech Communication and Restaurant Management at University of Illinois, Joey attended Kendall College Culinary School, and did internships at local fine-dining restaurants before leaving Chicago for Arizona, where he worked at the Arizona Biltmore. A couple more jobs, another move, this time to California, where fate stepped in, in the guise of two hot tamales.

No, we aren’t back to exploring dating information. THE Two Hot Tamales, Mary Sue Milligan and Susan Feninger, of Border Grill fame, hired Joey as sous chef, where eventually he assisted them in opening a new restaurant. With excellent experience under his belt, he moved to NYC, where he took on his first Executive Chef position at Citrus and learned exactly what it means to run a restaurant in a major city. When he realized that if he was going to work so hard, he’d rather be doing for himself, he came home to Chicago, and in 2004, opened Joey’s Brickhouse.

The initial prospects were scary. The space was too big, it needed a total gut rehab, and it didn’t at all match the image in Joey’s head of what he wanted his first restaurant to be.  But he realized that the neighborhood was ripe for a fun, casual dining establishment, and that with some serious elbow grease, he could make it work. He also knew that the kitchen could be designed with one of his other dreams in mind, that of creating a home delivery service providing healthy prepared meals.

He credits Seattle Sutton with having “a great basic idea, with really bad food--glorified airline food” and is waiting for the phone call from her company to hire him to revamp their offerings. Joey knows that healthy eating is tough, whether for weight loss or just for having decent meals when you have a busy lifestyle, and his goal is to provide top quality and top taste. The development of these innovative and delicious weekly menus is one of the most exciting things he does, and he has over 300 of them in his back pocket to prove it. The kitchen works on the delivery service items during the day, and handles the restaurant business at night, and Joey oversees all of it.

“It’s exhausting, I would never recommend it, I would never tell anyone to live like I live…you have to have a life, you have to have a vacation now and again…DON’T BE LIKE ME!”

Oy26 Nosh2

Joey Morelli is one animated character

Joey might be emphatic in his belief that he is probably doing it wrong, sacrificing too much, burning the candle at both ends—and at a couple places in the middle--but he says it with a little too much relish. This is a man who is passionate about everything he does, and it shows. In addition to his life at the restaurant, where you are likely to find his Mom playing hostess, or brother Greg delivering your drink, he and the family also indulge their boisterous sides every Saturday from 12-2 on AM 820, on their weekly radio show, Family Values With An Oy Vey! It’s mostly political but just about any topic might come into play on a given day. Ask about the new increase in city tax at restaurants to 10.25% and you’ll get an earful about the current administration not helping the small business owners during a tough economy. Tune into the show and you might catch Mom calling in, or Dad storming out…it is clear where Joey gets his passionate nature.

Those passions are serving him well. Joey brings a fine-dining sensibility to a casual dining restaurant, focusing on fresh ingredients, making everything from scratch, and providing it at prices that make for an affordable meal out.

The menu at JB is eclectic. Comfort food from many different regions abounds, classic Italian dishes, BBQ, burgers, Jewish favorites, even Asian influences are at play here, and with such an expansive menu, one wonders if someone can do everything well, or if the food might not suffer from an identity crisis. While I had eaten here a few times, I decided for this meal, to take with me someone who knows a lot about needing good, hearty food at reasonable prices, my very good friend Kevin, who is a Chicago Police Officer. Kevin frequently tells me about the kind of foods he and the guys on his team tend to grab when they are working, or pick up at the end of a long day, and I think just about every item on the JB menu has been mentioned at least once, so I figured he would be just the kind of expert to take with me.

We bypassed the 16 different flavors of Long Island Iced Tea in favor of beer, opting for the He’Brew- The Chosen Beer, which, though we picked it for kitsch value, was actually a pretty good beer. We started with calamari, which has become ubiquitous on menus, often with disastrous rubbery results. But here, it is transcendent, the squid perfectly cooked and tender, the batter light and crispy, with a balanced sauce that enhances the bites without overpowering the delicate fish. We paired it with the Morelli Salad, a basic chopped salad, unpretentious and generously portioned, with crisp radish, cucumber, and other vegetables, dressed with a blissfully light hand.

Joey’s take on lasagna, the Meatball Casserole, is a monstrously good plate, house-made sheets of pasta as thin as paper, layered with sliced meatballs, creamy cheese, and tomato sauce. The portion is enormous, and you will find yourself struggling to decide whether it is better to keep eating, or to try and save some to take home. You’ll probably keep eating, and there is no shame in ordering a second portion to go, since I guarantee you’ll crave it come lunchtime the next day. Equally successful are the ribs, tender meat falling off the bone, with a Napa cabbage slaw providing the right tart crunch to balance the sweet meat. Order extra sauce on the side and give up any thoughts of staying tidy. On the other side of the coin, the tilapia special, flaky fish with a light coconut crust was served on top of delicious vegetable fried rice, a total surprise and not an unwelcome one. We couldn’t bring ourselves to order the stuffed burger, afraid of the sheer size of the thing, but patrons around us were groaning in delight as theirs slowly disappeared…a huge one-pound behemoth, stuffed with your choice of up to three items, it is a gimmicky idea, but based on the response of the people around us, a gimmick that works. The one guy nearby who ordered his stuffed with bacon, bbq sauce, and onions seemed ready to expire with delight, and the pizza also got good reviews from the diners in earshot. While we were stuffed to the gills, in my family, there is always room in the dessert compartment, and the homemade key lime pie hit the perfect note, well made graham crust with hints of cinnamon, tender and not dry, sweet/tart creamy filling which was heady with fresh lime juice, and real whipped cream to bring it full circle.

I’ve never been for brunch, but I have many friends who rely on the $12 all you can eat Saturday brunch with $1 drinks to help them repair the damage they do to themselves on Friday night, and I hear the matzo brei is fantastic.

It wasn’t much of a surprise that we liked the food at Joey’s Brickhouse as much as we did. Nor was it a surprise that I like Joey as much as I do. When you have the perfect intersection of passion, training, and commitment to quality, with a decent sense of humor on top, you’re hard pressed to go wrong on either count. We might not actually be getting married, but if he’s cooking, I’m definitely coming for dinner.

Yours in good taste,
Stacey

www.staceyballis.com

NOSH of the week: Does your garden overflow? I have a black thumb myself, and true greenies will know what I mean when I say that I killed mint. MINT! (And don’t even ask about the fake fichus that lost all its leaves…I killed silk and plastic!)  But every year at this time I find myself the happy recipient of the overflow from those of you who have dirt skills, and developed this recipe to deal with that famously overabundant fruit, the tomato. If you aren’t growing them yourself, hit up your local farmer’s market (check out the Zed451 NOSH for a list of good ones) and get cooking.

STACEY'S ROASTY TOMATO SOUP

Can be served hot or cold and can easily be turned into a million other recipes. Approx 4 lbs. tomatoes - I use a mix of plum and cherry for depth of flavor, but use whatever your garden grown…it is only essential they be fresh and ripe.

1 medium sweet onion or 4 large shallots, diced
2 T Herbs de Provence
¼ c Olive Oil
Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 250 degrees.

Cut tomatoes in half lengthwise, toss in olive oil to coat, and arrange cut side down on oiled sheet pans. Add onion or shallot on top of the tomatoes. Sprinkle with the herbs and liberal salt and pepper. Roast approx 1.5 to 2 hours until skins are loose and the flesh is soft. Peel skins off tomatoes and discard. Dump the contents of the sheet pans into a large bowl. Using an immersion blender, blend into chunky soup. (frankly you can also do this with a potato masher, since the tomatoes are so tender)  Adjust seasonings to taste.

I serve either warm or cold with a dollop of crème fraiche or sour cream and some chopped fresh mint for grown-ups. Add alphabet noodles or cooked rice for kids. Stir in toasted croutons and drizzle with olive oil and parmesan for a classic Pappa al Pomodoro. Add fresh basil and garlic and you have a chunky pasta sauce. Add dried oregano and red pepper flakes and it becomes pizza sauce. Freezes beautifully, can be canned if you are ambitious, and lasts up to two weeks in fridge.

NOSH food read of the week:  The Art of Eating  by M.F.K. Fisher

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