Frank Reda, founder of Topo Gigio, dies at age 84
by maureen o’donnell Staff Reporter August 24, 2013 1:15PM
Frank Reda owned and operated the Old Town restaurant Topo Gigio, a mainstay of the neighborhood and popular eatery. He is shown with his daughter Sheri, his grandson Liam, and his son-in-law Rob.
Updated: September 25, 2013 6:16AM
Kevin Kline hung around to perfect his Italian accent for a film.
Singer Vic Damone was such a regular, a linguine dish was named in his honor.
Nicolas Cage and Mike Myers brought their wives.
Frank Reda co-founded the Old Town restaurant that drew them. His place, Topo Gigio, has been serving Italian food to hungry diners for a quarter-century.
Mr. Reda, 84, died Aug. 14 at Northwestern Memorial Hospital of complications after a stroke.
He didn’t have a lot starting out in life. He grew up near Huron and Rockwell, the son of Concetta and Salvatore, immigrants from a mountain town in the Calabria region of Italy. Four months after young Frank was born, the stock market crashed.
His father, who went by the name Sam, was a construction worker until a car accident mangled an arm. According to family lore, gangrene set in because he had to wait so long for treatment at Cook County Hospital. The arm was amputated below the elbow and he was fitted with a hook.
The steely prosthetic came in handy when someone tried to rob Sam’s liquor store and tavern, Reda’s, at Armitage and Laramie.
“He hooked some guy,” said Mr. Reda’s son, Frank Jr. “The guy tried to rob him and [he] sliced him good. The guy ran out running.”
Mr. Reda’s first job in the service industry was a phlegmy one: cleaning out spittoons at his dad’s tavern. “Our grandfather placed a quarter at the bottom of each one,” said Mr. Reda’s daughter, Sheri. “Our dad had to clean them to get his pay.”
He attended Providence St. Mel high school and St. Ambrose University in Iowa. His education was interrupted when he was drafted into the Army. Later, he received a business degree from Roosevelt University.
In the basement of his father’s tavern, he opened a club, the Blind Pig, from the Depression era vernacular for a speakeasy. Jazz saxophone star Cannonball Adderley played there. Mr. Reda made it comfortable, with plush chairs and couches — perhaps too comfy. “People would never leave!” he said.
He also started working for liquor distributors, selling brands including Jack Daniels and Korbel champagne.
Still, he wanted to be his own boss. About 1988, when he was 60, he opened the first Topo Gigio’s at 1437 N. Wells. “Topo” means “mouse” in Italian, an appropriate name for a tiny eatery with only a dozen or so tables. He called it Topo Gigio for the charming mouse character who appeared on the Ed Sullivan TV show.
He knew what made a restaurant successful. “My dad couldn’t cook, and he’d say ‘But I can eat’ — and he knew what tasted good,” his daughter said.
He also operated another, larger Topo Gigio’s at Clark and Wells. Eventually, he closed both, and opened up Topo Gigio at 1516 N. Wells, where it is still run by his sons, Frank Jr. and Tom.
Mr. Reda offered dinner and theater packages to the nearby Second City. Second City actress Bonnie Hunt often dropped in, his children said, and Hunt cast Mr. Reda as an extra in the 2000 Minnie Driver-David Duchovny film she directed, “Return to Me.”
The restaurant received glowing reviews. Then-Sun-Times restaurant critic Pat Bruno raved about the rigatoni al filo di fumo, featuring red sauce, fresh mozzarella and basil. Julia Roberts, Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld and Dennis DeYoung of Styx came to dine.
Another loyal customer, former White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, tweeted about Mr. Reda when he died, saying: “Rest in peace Sr Frank Reda long time friend in Chicago land mark Topo Gigio. always a class act and a respectful friend will be missed.”
“He had people in the neighborhood who visited frequently, as well as people who came in from the suburbs,” said David Dattalo, owner of the Fudge Pot, 1532 N. Wells.
Part of his success came from treating his staff like family, Dattalo said. When waiter Alex Korakis needed money to pay an immigration lawyer to help his wife, Mr. Reda was there for him, Korakis said.
“I needed an emergency loan without having any backup, no credit or anything,” Korakis said. Mr. Reda took out his checkbook and loaned him $2,000. Today, his wife, Yanna, is a citizen.
Mr. Reda always wore a crucifix ring from his mother. At his wake, his favorite drink, Jack Daniels, was on hand for toasts. He used to mix it with wine, as he put it, to “Fool the liver.” To the delight of his eight grandchildren, he could imitate all three Chipmunks: Simon, Theodore and Alvin.
In addition to his children Sheri, Frank Jr. and Tom, Mr. Reda is also survived by his daughters, Christi Wessel and Linda Gulotta; his brother, Bob, and his former wife, Micki Vendetti Stephans. Services were held.