NEW ORLEANS – The chrome Harley-Davidson parked in front of Lilette on Magazine Street most nights is owned by a restaurateur who has escaped Chicago.
Five years ago Anthony Potenzo owned two of the hippest joints in my hometown, Three Aces and Charlatan. When rising rents threatened profits, Potenzo called for an end.
It was the culmination of a hospitality career for an Italian kid who grew up on Taylor Street.
When Potenzo was a young rocker in a Valentino suit, with no socks and a huge personality, he took over from the legendary butler, Aurturo Petterino at the Pump Room. Frank Sinatra once gave him a tip of $ 500. He has hosted guests at Rosebud and Jilly’s Piano Bar on Rush Street, once a Rat Pack haunt in a corner of the Gold Coast called the “Viagra Triangle”.
I’ve been on the hunt for ex-Chicagoans like Potenzo on my storytelling trip around America this summer, curious about how they made peace leaving a city that defines them.
Granted, finding Potenzo dressed like a socialite from New Orleans Uptown and asking for a “half glass” of white wine was a jerk.
Potenzo grew up playing in the alley behind the Taylor Street bar he later owned. Her late uncle was notorious locally for leading the Mafia gambling operation. He made a career out of when Chicago clubs were cool, chic joints. Even when he lived in the suburbs, it was on “John Prine’s Mail Route”. I don’t know if there is anyone more genuinely “Chicago” than Potenzo.
“Chicago was my everything,” he said when I met him at Lilette’s bar on a recent weekday afternoon.
He was wearing a white linen shirt and gray linen pants, the polar opposite of his black-on-black wardrobe that was his home uniform.
His characteristic pompadour had been reduced to a subtle Mohawk.
He sipped chardonnay instead of gulping down Old Crow shots.
“What the hell happened to you?” I asked.
“Here it’s a different world, man. This place grows on you,” Potenzo said.
“I didn’t open my own restaurant until I was 52. When it was over, the only thing I wanted to do was go somewhere warm and ride my motorbike. I got a one way ticket.”
He fell in love with New Orleans from the moment he landed at Louis Armstrong Airport.
“A marching band was playing. I took them out for a few shekels,” Potenzo said. “I asked: Who are you playing for? And he said, ‘You, my man.’ I knew I wanted to live here. “
He bought a house in the Algiers neighborhood on the west bank of the Mississippi River where his friendly neighbors sometimes shout greetings from open windows.
“I was walking down the street and a lady was saying to me from her kitchen window, ‘Oh my darling, look at you, you are so beautiful.’ It was such a catharsis to have people looking at you and greeting you sincerely, “he said.
“Everything about this place, the music, the people. It had me. I wanted a warm place where I could ride my motorcycle every day, and it wouldn’t hurt like Chicago in the winter. And I got it. . “
Potenzo said he had no plans to return to the restaurant business until he met Chef John Harris, who opened Lilette in 2001 and kept the French bistro on the shortlist of top restaurants. of New Orleans since.
Harris – a quadruple finalist to James Beard who worked at Spiaggia in Chicago in the ’90s – hired Potenzo as the main host.
“Anthony had an instant connection with all of our regulars, and we’re a neighborhood establishment that doesn’t depend on tourists,” said Jesse Martin, CEO of Lilette. “Our bread and butter keep the people in the neighborhood happy, and it took maybe a week for everyone to be all smiles when they see him. He’s charming. He has great music. People. are attracted to him. “
Potenzo says the eclectic collection of neighborhood regulars, prominent actors and musicians who frequent the Magazine Street hot spot keep him energized.
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie used to come to dinner with the kids in an aft cabin when they lived in New Orleans. Bryan Cranston brought his family three nights in a row last year. Anthony “Captain America” Mackie is known for making an appearance.
“It’s always been that kind of joint because it’s low key. They know the food is good. Now you might think, oh, famous actors. But I’m like, that guy over there on the other side. side of the room plays guitar, f —— Walter “Wolfman” Washington. If a musician comes in, I’ve got them, ”Potenzo said.
“I have fun like in Chicago, but I don’t have to worry about being a homeowner. Every day is a gift. It’s the happiest I’ve ever been in my life.”
He adjusted the cuffs of his white linen shirt, sipped his chardonnay, and smiled.
Now Chicago is a great place to visit, and home is where Potenzo parks his Harley.
Mark Konkol, recipient of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting, wrote and produced the Peabody Award winning series “Time: The Kalief Browder Story”. He has been a producer, screenwriter and narrator for the “Chicagoland” docuseries on CNN and a consulting producer on the Showtime documentary “16 Shots”.
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