Vince’s restaurant in Harwood Heights builds on decades of tradition
Nuccio D'Argento speaks with diner Dan Nix at Vince's Italian Restaurant in Harwood Heights. Nix recently moved to Tennessee, but when he's back in Chicago, he and wife Betty make sure to get back to Vince's. | Ray Whitehouse~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 22, 2013 6:16AM
HARWOOD HEIGHTS — Wicked working hours could not deter two neighborhood kids intent on running their own restaurant.
Nuccio D’Argento and Rocco DeFrenza heard the siren’s son when they were teenagers working at Vince’s Italian Restaurant, 4747 N. Harlem Ave., in Harwood Heights.
“I met my wife here, and Rocco met his,” D’Argento said.
Laura D’Argento took phone orders while Rosanna DeFrenza was a hostess.
Eleven years later, the two men decided to buy the restaurant.
“It was Sept. 1, 2001,” D’Argento said.
Both he and DeFrenza left management jobs with Sbarro to devote their time to the family business.
But September 2001 was not a good time to take over a business. The uncertainty after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks caused business to slump.
The start of a three-year project to reconstruct Harlem Avenue only added to the turmoil.
“It was bad,” D’Argento said.
A year later, the partners began second-guessing their decision. But during those slow days, the two took advantage of the opportunity. They reassessed the menu, and remodeled.
“And year after year, business has been getting better and better,” D’Argento said.
Customers come for the fresh fish specials, such as Shrimp a la Vince.
“We use gulf shrimp,” D’Argento said. “It’s sweeter.”
Another favorite is the mist grigliata, an assortment of baby octopus, shrimp, salmon, cod and calamari served over sautéed spinach.
“Fresh,” D’Argento emphasized. “No frozen spinach here.”
Among its many repeat patrons are Donna and Rob Koch of Norwood Park, who had their first meal at the restaurant soon after they moved to the area in 2005.
“We were learning about the neighborhood, and just absolutely fell in love with the food,” Donna Koch said.
Rob Koch said the atmosphere complements the food.
“It’s like family,” Donna Koch said. “It’s old-school, fresh and we always go home with leftovers.”
Customer loyalty has allowed D’Argento and DeFrenza to give back to their community in ways such as nights where they donate a percentage of the night’s receipts to a local school.
The restaurant also provides about 3,600 meals every year for summer programs to the Salvation Army at Foster and Cumberland avenues.
“Me and Rocco are from this community,” D’Argento said. “We do what we do with the Salvation Army because, as kids, they let us play soccer in their gymnasium.
“We had to say a prayer first, but we were kids. We didn’t really pay attention.”
D’Argento acknowledges those little prayers have influenced his life.
“Either you ride the roller coaster of success or the roller coaster of destruction,” he said. “As a teen, destruction is more fun. You get a rush spending money on cigarettes, alcohol.
“But it affects you the rest of your life to the point where you look back and say you should have ridden the roller coaster of success.”
D’Argento said he could have been a blue-collar worker, a salesman or president of a big company.
“I had that opportunity,” he said, “but I wanted to do my own thing where my destiny is in my own hands.”
D’Argento’s and DeFrenza’s culinary success can be traced back to family meals.
“My mother, Angelina, could make a ‘wow’ dish with simple ingredients such as lentils,” D’Argento said. “She had a job as personal chef.”
Rocco’s mom, Graciella, also can cook.
When she and Angelina got together, dinner was a cook-off.
“They gave us the palette, to know the proper touch of seasoning,” D’Argento acknowledged. “And that’s what makes the meal — the proper seasoning.”
That, and a lot of hard work behind the scenes.