The Monte Cristo

Humming an old Greek lullaby that his mother sang to him as a child, Spiros Lomedis swiped the raggedy dishcloth rhythmically across the Formica countertop. In his mind’s eye, he conjured up the gentle Aegean breezes and the scent of figs from his island home of long ago. For centuries, the Lomedis and Kalanos families had been farmers, growing bountiful vegetables in the volcanic ash soil of Santorini.  The families had the reputation of the best growers of tomatoes, eggplants and cucumbers on the island.

Life on Santorini, as in all of Greece, took a drastic turn for the worse in the 1940s. First there was the merciless German Occupation, followed by the horrific Greek Civil War. Young men in their early twenties, like Spiros’ uncles, Demetrius and Alexi Kalanos, grew restless and saw no future by remaining in Greece. They knew, from the successes already there achieved by some Santorinians, that America beckoned to them as a land of golden opportunity

Leaving behind their parents and two sisters, Demetrius and Alexi came to the Chicago in 1950, sponsored by a cousin who owned an ice cream and candy store. There they worked for three years, until they saved enough money to buy a place of their own. It was a small restaurant, that some people in the neighborhood called a “coffee shop.” Inside there was a long circular counter, as well as six booths and eight tables. The neon sign above the door flashed the name of the restaurant, The Monte Cristo, repeatedly through the night.

The brothers bought it from a Jewish man who had owned it for twenty years. They decided to keep the name because they thought it something uniquely American that a Jew would name his place “the Lord’s mountain” in the Italian language. They soon learned that the restaurant’s name was derived from a popular sandwich on the menu.

Located on a busy intersection in Chicago’s Portage Park neighborhood on the North West Side, the place had a steady stream of customers from morning to night. At first, Alexi prepared food in the kitchen while Demetrius managed the restaurant and worked the register.

Then in the early ‘70s, Alexi, a bachelor, became ill with cancer and soon passed away.  Demetrius’ two children were both college graduates who were beginning their professional careers, and they had no interest in becoming involved in the restaurant business. Demetrius, in desperation, wrote to his sister Elena in Santorini, to start making arrangements with the proper authorities back home to bring her twenty-year old son Spiros to Chicago in order to assist him in the restaurant.

Spriros Lomedis loved farming and truly thought that is what he would be doing for the rest of his life. He took pride in growing the juiciest and tastiest tomatoes on the island.  He was about to ask his girlfriend Melina to marry him. But Spiros was also a devoted son, and he did not argue with his mother when she decided that he must go to Chicago to help her brother. It broke his heart when he told Melina what he had to do. He left Santorini, never having made a marriage proposal to her.

When Spiros first arrived in Chicago during the middle of winter the frigid air shocked his system. He never dreamed that weather could be so cold. “You will see, my boy, that you will get used to it. We all do,” Uncle Demetrius assured him in comforting Greek words.

Under his uncle’s tutelage, Spiros learned every aspect of the restaurant business. He opened the place in the morning and closed it at night. He bussed the tables and washed the dishes. The young farmer from Santorini learned how to fry fish, broil steaks and bake chicken. In about a year or so, he mastered all the mundane tasks of restaurant work, and his English was improving so much that he started to wait on customers and work the cash register. But what Spiros liked to do best was to go to the produce market in the early morning when it still was dark outside, and choose the best fruits and vegetables available that day from the merchant stalls.

The Monte Cristo did a steady business in the in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Workers from a nearby factory crowded the place at the shift changes in the morning and afternoon. The local business owners found it convenient and affordable for a decent breakfast and lunch. Cops came in all day for coffee and a quick bite to eat. Demetrius and Spiros always made sure to comp them with a rice pudding.

Spiros worked twelve hour days; seven days a week. He half-kiddingly told his customers that he never had a family because he was married to his restaurant. He made a good enough living to provide for himself, and each month he would wire some money to his family back home.

The community was changing and sometime in the mid- 90s, the neighborhood factory closed. A decade later it seemed that half the local retail shops had closed as well. Then the largest bank in the neighborhood shuttered its doors. Gross receipts for the restaurant dwindled. It seemed that people nowadays would spend five dollars for a sugary and creamy Starbuck’s frappuccino, rather than a full breakfast at The Monte Cristo for the same price.

Then Uncle Demetrius’ dementia began to set in. His children arranged for him to live in the Greek Nursing Home in Wheeling. Spiros began to think that now might be a good time to go back home to Santorini. After all, he had a nice nest egg in savings and soon he would be getting Social Security A couple of Mexican guys had made him an offer to buy the place for a taco joint. Each day he daydreamed more and more about the sights and smells of the island. In his heart of hearts, he knew that only in Santorini’s volcanic ash soil he could achieve his lifelong dream of growing the world’s perfect tomato.