Small but attractive indeed–Norwegian-American architects Michaelsen & Rognstad designed this Italian Baroque-inspired terracotta jewel for olive oil importer William Bertini in 1922. A renovation of an Italianate originally built in 1877, the building is a neat microcosm of the path of River North - a utilitarian mixed-use Italianate, a storefront and apartments for an Italian immigrant family, a steakhouse for decades, a procession of trendier restaurants beginning in the late 1980s, the conversion of the upstairs apartments into dining space, and a Michelin star in 2011 when the building housed Crofton on Wells. French restaurant Marchesa is the latest restaurant to occupy 535 N. Wells.

This was an early work in the career of the architects here, Christian Michaelsen & Sigurd Rognstad. Kids of Norwegian immigrants, they came from relatively working class backgrounds and lacked the connections for prestige projects, so their body of work is charmingly all over the place: vaguely Dutch refectories in Humboldt and Douglass Parks, the invented exoticism of the On Leong Merchants Association building in Chinatown, the Spanish Baroque Garfield Park fieldhouse, etc. One of the main through-lines in their work, however, was the heavy use of architectural terracotta.

A store with apartments above - famous Italian opera tenor Tito Schipa (later disgraced for his support of Mussolini) supposedly sang for the Bertinis in their apartment upstairs - in 1930s the first floor was turned into a restaurant, the oddly named "Pete’s Est! Est!! Est!!!"

...turns out it was meant to imply that Pete's was the "finEST! friendliEST!! greatEST!!!". The neighborhood now known as River North was very different at the time - seedy and scrappy, light industry with a whiff of Skid Row - and critics never failed to mention that when writing about Pete's. "The dumpishness of the neighborhood invariably raises eyebrows", "my companion looked askance at the neighborhood when we arrived", "tucked away in rather a a shabby neighborhood", etc.

A Bertini grandson bought Pete's in 1969, reopening it as Italian steakhouse House of Bertini. That restaurant closed in 1987, and a parade of restaurants have cycled through the building since: the short-lived Miami Bar & Grill (it didn't last a year), Parrinello’s Ristorante (1990-1996), Crofton on Wells (1997-2012), and now Marchesa.

I was really hoping to find a mid-century photo of the building. This 1977 photo of Studs Terkel (!!!) visiting the SRO next door (which was once owned by his parents and where he grew up), with the House of Bertini in the background, will have to suffice. Ray Burley, Chicago Sun-Times.

In all, a very River North trajectory - but that Bertini terracotta "B" is still there on the facade.


Production Files

Primary sources, rhizomatic reading, odds and ends that turned up in researching this.

Julia Bachrach wrote perhaps the definitive blog post on Michaelsen & Rognstad, the architects who designed the renovation of 535 N. Wells.

The explanation for the odd name of Pete's Est! Est!! Est!!! steakhouse. 1966, Chicago Tribune.

1996 ad, Chicago Tribune.