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Cooking next to a roaring fire might be quaint in winter, but when temperatures soar into triple digits, the "aquarium" barbeque setup in the back of Smokin' M's on Roosevelt Road loses some of its allure.
"Yeah, it gets hot back here. All the air conditioning is in the front where customers sit," said owner Jimmy Maccio.
Behind the tempered glass enclosure, racks of ribs, chains of sausages, half-chickens and chunks of brisket cook for six hours at a time on a grate above flames. Maccio's son Vince helps prepare the meat for cooking in the building that for many years housed Steve Lee's Chinese restaurant.
But that roaring fire of hickory wood - carted in from Hammond Farms in Aurora - is what Maccio and his new partner, family friend Anthony Quattrocci, are betting on as they expand to a second store at 6814 W. North Avenue in Chicago and hope to create several more throughout the suburbs. The new site formerly housed a jerk chicken restaurant.
"Other barbeque places use a smoker," said Quattrocci. "They add the hickory flavor in a liquid smoke."
The aquarium came from an old Cock Robin restaurant in Maywood, previously owned by Maccio's family. "They're a Chicago invention. You don't see them much outside Chicago. I pulled it out of storage, shined it up and replaced a few pieces."
Maccio also had the recipes. "My father worked at a beef rib-and-stew joint in Chicago with a good friend from the South named Jimmy Cobb. He had the 40-year-old recipes straight from Mississippi."
Maccio, a former chef at Jimmy's Place on Madison, formerly prepared Italian dishes like chicken Vesuvio, and lasagna as well as pizza sauce. Now he creates nostalgic flavors from the American South, like homemade pecan pie, barbeque sauces, hot links, rib-tips, homemade rubs, pork and beans, turnip greens and peach cobbler.
"Couple Italians doing barbeque. Go figure," said Quatrocci.
Quatrocci, who formerly managed marketing, concept and design for the Ritz Carleton and Marriott hotels in Chicago, said Southern down-home cooking appeals to customers, both black and white. "We have a unique customer base, about 60 percent black, 40 percent white," he said. For that reason, the partners are looking at locations comfortable to both demographic groups, like North Avenue in Chicago, and the western suburbs of Bolingbrook and East Aurora.
Maccio will also use the new, larger kitchen in the North Avenue space to develop his fledgling Italian catering business as well. "It's close enough so we can have efficiencies between the two locations," said Quatrocci.
As for Smokin' M's, Quatrocci is developing iPhone apps and trying to market the brand, maybe even to a franchise level.
"We have a great product and a great clientele," he said.