Wooden crates filled with butternut squash, red-skinned potatoes, and Empire apples are the center pieces of Alex Curatolo’s juice bar and local market, Belli’s. The winter frost that permeates the Midwest keeps the produce selection at the store succinct. But the pickings are ample enough for Curatolo to create a myriad of soups, flavors of which rotate on a daily basis.
Belli's soups du jour are so popular with customers, Curatolo has a hard time keeping the pots from going dry. Seasonal, locally-sourced ingredients, and a bit of improvisation are the secrets behind Curatolo’s hearty meals. She doesn’t use recipes, to the chagrin of customers who request them, and creates batches based on the produce available at the store. "Right now there’s so much cabbage so I’m always making cabbage soup.” The icy frost lends this brassica a particularly sweet flavor and makes for a warming, winter meal. Cabbage soup has caught on with her regular customers, who call ahead before visiting the store to ensure it hasn’t sold out.
Requiring commercially-produced broth to provide flavor and liquid for a soup is a myth that Curatolo dismisses. “[Store-bought broth] is not fresh. It doesn’t taste good, it’s not real food. It’s been sitting on a shelf of the grocery store,” Curatolo said. Setting aside recipes, she starts with fresh, unprocessed ingredients instead of broth. She creates flavor by sautéing vegetables like carrots and onions to which she simply adds pure water, a technique underlined by Time magazine’s food columnist Mark Bittman.
For customers wanting to make nutritious, wholesome meals at home, Curatolo offers an affordable produce share box. Each week, she purchases bulk orders of fresh vegetables and fruits from local and urban farms as well as through a distributor, Local Foods. She divides up the produce and offers shares, at cost, to customers to have ordered ahead of time. A share may include winter vegetables like radishes, carrots, spinach, not to mention sweet cabbages. Offering produce to her retail customers at wholesale prices is one way Curatolo attempts to draw customers to Belli’s, and ignite their culinary creativity. "They get all these weird vegetables which I try make sure they get. What can I have them do with this?” said Curatolo.
Initially penned as a permanent indoor farmers market, Belli’s has seen greater demand for ready-to-eat foods since opening, leading Curatolo to expand the food menu. "When I opened up I noticed that people didn’t want the [groceries] necessarily, they wanted [food] already made. Selling raw potato versus selling a baked potato is such a different thing,” she said.
In response to customer demands, soup has become a mainstay on the menu, while new items such as wraps and salads feature on the menu. Curatolo, the daughter of a nurse, is keenly aware of the relationship between food and health. As a store owner, Curatolo fields health-related questions from her customers, an experience she shares with her mother. “We’ve kidded around how we should wear nurse uniforms,” she said.
In offering more convenience foods, Curatolo stays true to her ethos of preparing wholesome foods with maximum nutrition. That means the menu items at Belli’s are minimally processed, free of additives, and feature local and seasonal ingredients. “We control what goes in there,” she said. Creating tasty food is about what is left out as much as what is put in. She offers salad greens from urban farm Growing Power. So buttery, peppery, and lively are the blend of greens, they are able to stand their own. “I tell customers to try it before putting dressing on it because it tastes so good,” she said.
Farm fresh produce is similarly left adulterated in Belli’s line of juice and juice cleanses. In Chicago’s increasingly crowded fresh juice market, Belli’s “farm-to-bottle” concept differentiates it from competitors. Fennel from Meyer Farms in Wauconda IL go into Belli’s Green Juice, joined by apples and cucumber from Lehman’s Orchard in Niles, MI. Juices are cold-pressed, a method that is gaining consumer popularity. Extracted without the application of heat, cold-pressed juices, theoretically, retains high concentrations of nutrients and enzymes. With it’s range of craft juices available at other retailers such as Morgan St Cafe in the West Loop, Belli’s reach is extending beyond Pilsen.
Within recent years, Pilsen has seen an increase in commerce supporting sustainable foodways. Seasoned restauranteurs Jason Hammel and Amalea Tshilds opened Nightwood, which like it’s established sister restaurant Lula Cafe offers a seasonal menu and sources from local purveyors. The Pilsen Community Market held on Sundays is a weekend draw, currently in it’s indoor season at the Honky Tonk BBQ on 18th St and Racine.
Businesses that have opened up, especially those within the past year, have increased traffic of people visiting the neighborhood. Belli’s customer base include visitors to the neighborhood as well as Pilsen's diverse residents. Much to the enthusiasm of Curatolo, nutrition is the focus for shoppers walking through her door. "It’s definitely a lot of people who want to be more healthy, no matter what.”
Food education and sharing recipes are next on Belli’s agenda. Curatolo wants to change the perception that cooking healthy meals is costly, time consuming, and laborious. In her opinion, healthy foods such as soups and salads can be prepared quickly and in quantities for many meals throughout the week. The barriers to attaining education on cooking and nutrition stands between people and healthy eating, making fast food more appealing. Many factors influence people’s eating decisions, including time constraints and busy work schedules, which Curatolo acknowledges are difficult to accommodate. "But I’d say food education is huge because I think if people knew how to make [healthy food] faster, they would do it,” she said.
Approaching her tenth year of being a resident of Pilsen, Curatolo is deeply invested in her community, one in which support of health and sustainability are becoming more visible. “Since I’ve been here, I haven’t been able to leave,” she said. Curatolo aims to continue opening up dialogue on healthy eating and living with customers and neighbors.
Belli's, Thalia Hall, 1223 W. 18th St. 312 307 7305
Sera Jeong hails from Auckland, New Zealand by way of Seoul, Philadelphia, Boston. With a background in Sociology-Anthropology, she is interested in people, cultures, and of course, food. Grocery shopping is an event, never a chore. She enjoys cooking at home and sharing her meals on Instagram @seraseraeraser, though she loves discovering and eating her way around Chicago!