The first time I had a drink at Ric's was during the summer of 1958. I was in Chicago for TV Guide meetings of midwestern sales people and, not being a salesman, wasn't certain why I was invited. I recall nothing involving the meetings other than escaping for a drink at Ric's with John Higgins. We sat outdoors on a balcony overlooking on-the-make Rush St. In those days, Ric's was known as the "Montmartre of the Midwest" whose superb location between the Daily News/Sun Times building and theTribune was perfect for journalists.
Higgins was a salesman and very good as I had learned in Rochester, NY where earlier we had advanced the TV Guide sometimes arriving at work to be met by Toronto advertising people shoving camera-ready ads in our faces. Strict Canadian liquor advertising laws plus the Guide's weekly Lake Ontario Edition circulation of 700,000 had the Canucks begging for ad space. As a side note, there was nothing vaguely similar to Ric's in Rochester and I'd be inclined to bet the ranch this many years later that what was true then continues today.
Ric's (its formal name was Riccardo's Restaurant) was one of those places of considerable appeal to artists and writers, a condition worked to advantage by Ric who was a painter, dancer, musician and chef. Ric, born in Italy three years after the turn of the century, first had a restaurant on South Oakley. Prohibiton was in full swing as was Al Capone and the WPA (Works Progress Administration) whose Illinois Art Project provided work for artist friends--among them twin brothers Ivan and Malvin Albright, Aaron Bohrod and William Schwartz. Riccardo (born Riccardo Novaretti), inspired by the work of his friends, did a lot of painting, then bought a former speakeasy at the corner of Rush Street and Hubbard and established Riccardo Restaurant and Gallery. Hanging his paintings on the walls, he invited friends to participate in monthly exhibitions.
It was in 1947 that Ric purchased adjoining space in which he created a palette-shaped bar asking his pals to paint some panels. Telling the artists not to check out each other's work, he gave six of them assignments dealing with The Arts. Ivan Albright (his most famous work would be "The Picture of Dorian Gray") did Drama (Mephistopheles) while brother Malvin painted Sculpture. Others included: Bohrod's Architecture; Vincent D'Agostino's Painting; Rudolph Weisenborn's Literature; Schwartz's Music; and Riccardo's Dance. Seated at the Palette Bar, I found myself fascinated by the brilliance of those WPA Chicago School efforts, particularly Albright's fiendish Mephistopheles. I later learned that Ric was the model for the recently-married Albright and that Mephistopheles' thoroughly ugly legs were inspired by those of Albright's bride, Josephine Medill Patterson, a member of the Medill/McCormick'Patterson family of journalists. Not nice, but artists always strive for truth. During my time in Chicago (1968-1989), the Palette Bar was rarely less than two deep shortly after 5 p.m. on weekdays.
An artist's life is rarely easy and so it was with Ric's pals. There are no records, for example, suggesting that the Albrights were ever paid for their Palette Bar efforts. It appears that spaghetti dinners went a long way then. Ivan and Malvin received $75,000 for "Dorian Gray" but that was Hollywood money. On the other hand, Ivan, cheekiest of the Chicago artists, was known to ask $100,000 for a painting while suggesting that he was "every bit as good as any old master." Ivan Albright was the best of the Chicago School.
Not all of Ric's friends were artists. Ike Sewell, like Riccardo a U.S. soldier in Italy during World War II, became smitten by pizza and wound up getting credit for bringing the dish to Chicago via Uno's Pizzeria. Because he knew nothing about restaurant business management let alone cooking, Sewell made a friend of Riccardo who did. Oddly enough, Sewell wanted the restaurant to be Mexican, a bad test enchilada was prepared, and Riccardo promptly became ill. The dauntless duo then turned to plan B pizza and that's how deep dish pizza and not chimichangas came to Chicago and, perhaps, why we have Tex-Mex rather than Chi-Mex. Taking a step further, we, otherwise, might be salivating today for pizza tostadas.
Ric, a true Renaissance man, was 51 when he died in 1954. His son, Rick, Jr., then serving with the army in Korea, took over the restaurant although his heart wasn't in it. Possessing nowhere near his dad's work ethic, Rick had visions of becoming an actor and appeared in a number of local plays. Married and divorced three times by 1975, he was close to broke from alimony and child support. One night he sold the Ivan Albright and Bohrod panels for $1,000 each; those knowledgeable about details of the sale suggest Riccardo was drunk at the time.
Unable to catch a break, Rick Riccardo found himself taking a strange driving route from Chicago to Los Angeles. It was in 1977 by way of Phoenix and he drove 30 miles west of there pulling over in Buckeye for a bite to eat. Rather than head for pasta or pizza, he chose a steak house and choked to death among Heimlich maneuver-less diners.
Much has been written about Ric's whose food, while hardly haute cuisine, was basic, Italian, dependable and reasonably priced. It was 10 years before Rick's death that columnist Jory Graham commented about the dashing restaurateur whose eye roved far too often over his female customers rather than concentrating on culinary efforts: "Mr. Richard (Rick) Riccardo hasn't changed the decor an iota since his father's day, so the restaurant still has its pleasant timeless atmosphere--strolling guitarist, accordionist and singing waiters--and the bar still swings under its famous Seven Lively Arts murals."
I moved to Chicago for Playboy Enterprises the next year. While whatever carousing I did was pretty much concentrated at the north end of Boul Mich and Hugh Hefner's home, I became aware of Riccardo's and outstanding bartenders Jose and Peter plus a magnificent waiter, Bobby Estrada, whose approach to his profession was reminiscent of Victor Borge's to music. Inclined to sit at the bar of generous pour, I became aware that one of Bobby's tables was that of the great editorial cartoonist John Fischetti, then with the still alive Daily News.. Seven years later, I counted myself fortunate to sit often at Fischetti's table when I began doing public relations for both the Daily News and Sun-Times.
A couple of Greek brothers, Nick and Bill Angelos, bought Riccardo's when Rick died. They did a good job continuing to serve those dishes closely associated with the restaurant, among them magnificent minestrone.
Reduced in number by Rick's outrageous low-ball sale of the Albright and Bohrod panels, The Seven Lively Arts continued as a group with the replacement of the Bohrod by a John Foote work while a photographic reproduction of the dark baroquely drawn Mephistopheles looked down upon Palette Bar patrons.
One of the significant problems of the restaurant business today is that people don't drink like they used to. Luncheon diners who accompany their meals with liquor are frowned upon by Corporate America offering further proof that corporations aren't people. Fischetti and I firmly believed that a couple of martinis at lunch made us more creative in the afternoon. John must have been doing something right. He won a Pulitzer in 1969. A humble man, Fischetti prominently displayed in his office Bill Mauldin's remarkable drawing of a tearful Abraham Lincoln monument reacting to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Fischetti thought the Pulitzer winner the best editorial cartoon ever. His own similarly accorded work was nearby yet not showcased like Mauldin's effort.
Drinking then by those in communications and associated fields was inclined to be serious. A major league of booze consumption was The Bermude Triangle whose watering holes were Ric's, O'Rourke's and the Old Town Ale House. Ric's for dinner and drinks was the springboard into the evening's adventures with the other two, located a few blocks apart on North Avenue, were joints of revelry and occasional brawls. To be perfectly accurate, there are those who insist Billy Goat's and not the Old Town Ale House was the third corner of the triangle.
For a magnificent look at O'Rourke's, check out Roger Ebert's Journal and a piece titled: "A Bar on North Avenue." Still concerned principally with film, Pulitzer winner Ebert was assigned by the Sun-Times in 1968 to write about The Big Bunny, Hefner's DC-9. After an initial luncheon session at The Mansion, Ebert faded from the project when he moved to full-time movie reviewing.
A changing attitude toward drinking, competition from new restaurants and taxes made things difficult for the Angelos brothers who gave up the restaurant in 1989, then attempted a resurrection in 1993. During the period, an upscale dining spot with a private club upstairs was attempted. By then, all the Seven Lively Arts had been carried off to places like New York and Connecticut; in their place was a huge bizarre psycho-historical painting offering an imaginary scene in Ric the elder's upstairs apartment/studio. Seated around the table are Ric, Ivan Albright and then contemporary Windy City writers and talkers including Studs Terkel, Nelson Algren and Mike Royko. Also seated are Salvador Dali and Marc Chagall whose presence makes little sense. Others include an unidentified very dark person and Ivan Albright whose Mephistopheles once was thought to be worth but $1,000. The final version of Ric's had a short life.
Last time I checked, the old Ric's is occupied by something called Phil Stefani's 437 Rush Street. Always be wary of restaurants identified by full names of its owners. The food will be lesser and the drinks shorter.
Oh, yes. The Seven Lively Arts murals are back together again thanks to the dogged pursuit of Seymour Persky, a very wealthy Chicago preservationist who had become convinced the paintings represent something uniquely Chicago. Costing a total of $665,000, they have moved up in in class and seen first at The Rendezvous, the Chicago Union Club's posh bar and most recently (2008) at the Chicago Historical Museum for a six month's run.
If you're in Chicago, check in regarding their viewing availability with the Charnley-Persky House on the city's Gold Coast. Located at 1365 N. Astor, it's about a soft 8-iron from Hefner's old digs.
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