Tony Priolo is in the business of making food dreams come true, regardless of allergies. There is no food allergy that this Chicago chef cannot handle in his restaurant, Picollo Sogno, which was inspired by his own "little dream" to make simple, authentic Italian dishes just the way his grandmother taught him. His love of food extends to each dish and customer, as he takes every precaution to help families with food allergies enjoy safely eating out.
We sat with Tony in his stunning outdoor patio at Picollo Sogno to talk food allergies with the famed chef. Be sure to check out Priolo's other Chicago restaurant, Nonnina, and his upcoming River West burger bar, Maillard Tavern.
Picollo Sogno is known for being great with food allergies. How did this start?
It has always been a part of our culture, but it started with a couple that came in with their son who had a severe wheat allergy. They would even bring pots and pans from their own home to prevent any cross-contamination — but I assured them I would take care of it. I made their meals in the back kitchen away from everything, cooking it all myself. I wanted to build their confidence.
Their son was the first person who really made me pay attention. They started eating here two or three times a week because they trusted us. Fifteen years later, they're still coming back.
What is your process for serving a guest with food allergies?
Your server will always ask if you have any allergies and mark it for the kitchen staff. We evaluate the allergy and determine how and where to cook the requested dish — and then execute in the safest way possible.
Everyone follows protocol, all the way down the line. We mark the allergy so everyone knows — the expeditors, myself, the sous chef. It is marked by position at the table so we know exactly where the food and drinks are going, through every course — it is very precise.
Do you get many customers that come in with food allergies?
Yes — it is part of the restaurant business to accommodate everyone, including those with food allergies. Parents ask a lot of questions and that's okay. I am a father first, and if my daughter had a food allergy, I would do the same. There is so much trust involved when you eat out, and we take it very seriously.
Have you noticed an increase in the number of food allergic customers in the past couple years?
I would say it is pretty consistent. Throughout the years, people have always felt comfortable dining at Piccolo Sogno with a food allergy. We feel that people should be able to dine out normally with allergies — their allergies should not limit their experiences. Food allergies are a serious issue and need to be treated as such from the restaurant's perspective.
Has anyone ever come in with an allergy that has stumped you?
No — there aren't any food allergies that we can't handle.
Have you had any breakthrough moments with food allergic guests?
I had this little girl come up to me with her mom — I think she was about 7 years old — and said, “I’ve never eaten in a restaurant before.” They were so happy with their experience, they came back twice. She was a very informative and smart little girl.
Best dish for a nut allergy?
Depends on savory or sweet. In general, we try to accommodate someone based on what they like — whether it is fish, meat, pasta, etc.
We get nut allergies all the time. There are no peanuts on the menu unless it is in a special, but we do use several tree nuts in other dishes. However, we make everything in-house so there is a lot of control over the preparation of the dish.
I don’t recommend gelato due to hazelnut flavoring that we use — there is a risk of cross-contamination in the gelato machine. The flan or the panna cotta with berries is a great option.
Best dish for a gluten allergy?
I can cook pasta dishes for those with gluten allergies. But I won’t do pizza because it all goes in the same oven, and I don’t want to take the chance.
Who inspired your passion for cooking?
It all started with my grandmother. We were very close, and she would travel high and low to get the best ingredients for her cooking. I was just a passenger on her journey, but I hope to keep her tradition alive in my own cooking and family.
Do you have a favorite food/cooking memory?
After my grandmother had passed, my mother and aunt were trying to figure out a specific recipe that she would make during the Christmas holidays. No one could get it correct. I told them that the secret to her cranberry pound cake was condensed milk, not regular milk. They tried it, and it was perfect. I was only 7 years old at the time.
What influences how and what you cook?
The season is my main influence.
What made you open your restaurants in Chicago?
I decided to open my own place because I always had a passion to show my cooking style to the city. My business partner, Ciro Longobardo, had the same dream and we talked about doing this together for years. Finally, in 2008, we decided to do it.
What do you cook for yourself?
I am a pasta person, so I tend to cook pasta regularly. We make pasta at home, and the sauce always changes — the last one was a tomato sauce with sausage, meatball, pork and veal. We also make a lot of Sicilian-style pizza at home. I’m trying to keep that tradition with my daughter.
What is the most popular dish at Piccolo Sogno?
Branzino al Forno — whole-roasted, sea salt-crusted Mediterranean Sea Bass.
What would your last meal on Earth be?
Anything made by my grandmother.
Your go-to Chicago restaurant?
Piccolo Sogno and Nonnina, of course!
Cubs or Sox?
Cubs — I grew up on Waveland.
Which Chicago neighborhood has the best food?
What three things do you always keep in your kitchen?
Olive oil, flour and coffee
If you could have dinner with one person who would it be?
Tell us about your upcoming Maillard Tavern.
Maillard is going to be a burger bar opening this year, hopefully. The name comes from the Maillard reaction, which is a chemical reaction in browning. We named it after Louis-Camille Maillard, the French chemist who discovered it. The burgers, fries and buns will all be browned — and we are looking for the perfect gluten-free bun. And, we aren't planning on any peanuts in the menu.