Before I begin this story, whaddaya say we get an espresso to set the mood. And I know just the place. It’s a quaint little coffee shop that serves up the finest caffeinated Italian beverages along with authentic Italian (excuse me, Sicilian) pastries.
Now let me tell ya, Starbucks it ain’t. Walk into this place and you’ll feel yourself immediately transported back in time. This storefront is more than 80 years old, with its original hardwood floors, oak doors and woodwork, and a copper-colored tin ceiling. The rough plastered walls are adorned with framed album covers of all the great Italian crooners: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Louis Prima, Al Martino, Mario Lanza … even Connie Francis.
Italian cinema is also well represented with a collection vintage movie posters and a corner dedicated to that ageless beauty, Sofia Loren. The back wall looks as if it should be on the picture side of a postcard from Southern Italy with a set of faux windows complete with flowerboxes and a clothesline with hanging laundry, even a pair of my old “moodons.” I mean, this place really looks like something out of a Coppola or Scorsese film. … I’m sorry, I mean, like something out of a Vito Brancato film.
“Who is Vito Brancato?” you may be asking. Well, these days Vito is the owner and proprietor of this particular shop in Berwyn, called Caffe Palermo. If you’re not a local, this cafe is located at 6510 Ogden Avenue on historic Route 66 and with a clear view of the Chicago skyline.
But Brancato is more than just a barista whipping up espresso macchiatos and skim lattes. He is a filmmaker who is currently using Berwyn as his own personal Hollywood backlot for a steady flow of short films. Not coincidentally, an Italian theme runs through Brancato’s films, not unlike the works of his idols, Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese, and his actors tend to be of Italian descent: Chris Damiano, Carmine Pignataro, Pauli Bianco, and Johanna Bonavolanto.
Vito’s “Ciao, America!”, a fictional Italian variety program featuring guitar playing Sicilian goat farmers Aldo and Fredo Monelli, was filmed on the stage of Berwyn’s Liberty Cultural Center. The streets of Berwyn have also been used to recreate the “mean streets” of downtown Chicago in the short film “Aldo and Fredo in America.”
Currently, Vito is filming a web comedy series called (you guessed it) “At the Coffee Shop,” which Brancato describes as an Italian-American “Seinfeld.” Material for this project is as abundant as Illinois coal. The many colorful characters who patronize Caffe Palermo gave Vito the inspiration to make comedy from real life.
Brancato’s most recent screenplay is a complete departure from the Italian-themed entertainment he usually creates. “Our Night with Elvis” is the story of the night the Beatles met Elvis. Vito describes the story as a rock ‘n’ roll fantasy about one of the great nights in music history. He says, “Yes, the Beatles and Elvis did in fact meet that one and only night. But the details are sketchy at best. So I just wrote what I would like to have happened that night.”
I have read the script, and as a HUGE Elvis fan (6 foot 7, 325 pounds) I absolutely love it! It’s funny, poignant, filled with great music and even a little sadness at the end. And though it’s not Italian and probably can’t be filmed in Berwyn, it has the makings of a great film. Then again, as great as Elvis was, isn’t it possible he has at least some Italian in him … maybe on his mom’s side?
Aside from Vito’s talents behind the camera and the coffee grinder, he’s always willing to donate his services to the Italian American Civic Organization of Berwyn, the Berwyn Park District and many other groups and organizations in the City of Berwyn.
So next time you’re in the neighborhood and need a jolt of caffeine, stop by Caffe Palermo for a real treat. You may even find me sitting there penning Benvenuto A Berwyn, trying to stay focused with the commotion of regulars in the crammed quarters of the business. If you make a good impression on Vito, you just might end up as a character in one of his films!
More information on Vito and his store can be found at www.caffepalermo.razorfilms.com.