With more than 35 televisions tuned into sporting events across the globe, The Sportz Nook, 7841 W. Grand Ave., invites hungry locals to “come in a stranger and leave a friend.” Dave Carlson, general manager, has 12 beers on tap and put considerable attention to detail in the menu that keeps customers coming back for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
“Our customers like to say we are a restaurant disguised as bar,” said Carlson with a smile. “You can come in at 9 a.m. for a Denver omelet, play some games in the afternoon, or have a dinner that will really surprise you.”
The diminutive bar opened in May 2022 and Carlson took over the role of general manager just two months after the opening. His love for food service blossomed at age 13 when he took his first job as a busboy and dishwasher at a banquet hall. Over the years he worked in restaurants across the city and developed his own arsenal of recipes. And now he is bringing his own culinary touch to the Elmwood Park bar menu.
“I’ve been cooking for 45 years and I have a palette,” said Carlson. “I started working on my meatball recipe when I was 15 years old and I’ve perfected it over the years.”
Today, Carlson serves up his “dense yet tender” bocce meatballs at Sportz Nook. They start with a combination of beef, pork and veal, Pecorino-Romano brings flavor and Carlson swears by the addition of Liborio breadcrumbs. He is singularly devoted to the bakery located just around the corner from the bar. The meatballs are baked and then simmered in a scratch made red sauce.
In fact, Angelo and Enzo Pagni, owners of the now shuttered Sabatino’s restaurant, served as “culinary mentors” to Carlson and gave the rich and flavorful dish their seal of approval. At Sportz Nook, the meatballs are available as an appetizer and on a sandwich. The passionate manager also pointed out they will be part of a spaghetti and meatball entrée special during Elmwood Park’s upcoming Restaurant Week beginning on Feb. 17.
“Rocky’s Philly Cheese Steak” is a another Sportz Nook menu standout. The popular item is a confident riff on a Philadelphia classic. Served with a pile of hand cut fries, Sportz Nook’s version of the sandwich is made with shaved ribeye, roasted red peppers and onions with ooey-gooey Provolone cheese on Liborio French bread. The hearty sandwich is just one of the reasons Carlson says some customers return multiple times a day.
The menu is being expanded to include grilled whiskey BBQ shrimp and a hummus plate to please vegetarians. Carlson is also proud to serve white wine steamed mussels and has plans to bring fajitas to the restaurant that masquerades as a bar.
“We are getting the reputation for having really good food and that matters to me,” said Carlson who credits his longtime friend Terry Harb for bringing him to The Sportz Nook.
Harb, who owned several restaurants and bars, was “always begging” Carlson to come to work for him. Carlson refused until Harb pitched him the management position at The Sportz Nook.
“I’d known him for 16 years and I always said no until he mentioned Elmwood Park,” said Carlson. “I grew up here; this is my home — I just can’t say no to Elmwood Park.”
Harb loved Carlson’s homestyle dishes and had insisted that he put his famous meatloaf on the menu when the weather turned cold. Sadly, Harb died before winter, but Carlson honors his friend’s memory by offering the meatloaf entrée every Friday evening.
“The meatloaf is made with love, and I know how much he loved it,” said Carlson who credits the dish for keeping Harb’s memory alive.
The Sportz Nook brings a surprisingly robust menu to a traditional bar. Carlson credits his friendly staff and growing customer base for their gaining popularity. The bar offers patio seating in the summer, occasional live music on the weekend and filling menu options every day of the week.
Come in for a limoncello martini and stay for the meatballs.