Q: There was a restaurant called Danilo's in the area of Grand and Milwaukee. They've been closed for about 8 years. They had a terrific item on the menu known as Italian-style pepper steak. Hoping that you may have been familiar with the location and could tell me if there is another establishment serving that item. I believe the old owner's name was Danilo Lenzi
—Tony Gustin, Evergreen Park, Ill.
A: Italian-style pepper steak was a signature dish at Danilo's, which opened in the late 1960s at 2435 S. Western Ave., moved to 1235 W. Grand Ave. in the early 1980's and then, finally, at 464 N. Halsted St. Danilo's closed about 15 years ago. Piccolo Sogno occupies the Halsted Street spot now.
"It was definitely a signature item,'' says Danilo Lenzi of the pepper steak. Lenzi has retired but still lives above the space where his restaurant operated. "Every once in a while people will ask about it."
Judy Hevrdejs, my Tribune colleague, wrote in a 1979 "Cheap Eats column" that her Danilo's waitress was "sold on pepper steak a la Danilo ($8.75; $7.50 a la carte)" but Judy went with the chicken cacciatore instead, at $5.50 for the dinner. Paul A. Camp, in a 1983 Tribune restaurant review, described Danilo's steaks as "excellent" in general, especially for the price ($20 for a 20-ounce New York strip). He took note of the Italian-style pepper steak, describing it as "rubbed with garlic and peppercorns and sauteed in sherry, garlic, herbs and peppers."
There are, of course, plenty of restaurants making Italian-style pepper steak these days. But Lenzi can't think of any that make it like he used to.
"Mine was unique. I made it up," Lenzi said. "It was a variation on steak au poivre with sweet peppers and sausage and finished off with sherry wine."
You can try to make it at home, if you'd like. Lenzi gave me a rough recipe over the telephone. He offered no specific amounts, cooking times or oven temperatures. So you'll have to experiment.
Mix equal amounts of seasoned salt, coarsely-ground black pepper and granulated garlic (Lenzi think it's OK to use minced garlic instead, if you like) in a small bowl. Rub the seasonings into a New York strip steak about 1 inch thick. Let it sit until ready to cook. (Me? I'd season the steak a few hours before dinner and pop it in the refrigerator.)
Melt butter in skillet on medium-high heat. Sear the meat on both sides. Remove the steak; set skillet aside. Lenzi puts the steak into a metal baking dish pan and places it in a "hot" oven to cook until the desired doneness was reached. (I'd set the oven at 450 and let it reach that temperature for about 5 minutes before putting in the steak.)
While the steak cooks in the oven, return the skillet to the heat. Saute chopped green sweet peppers and sausage (I'm assuming Italian) in the steak drippings. Pour in sherry, deglaze the pan, and allow the liquid to reduce into a slightly syrupy sauce.
Remove the steak from the oven, top with the sauce, green peppers and sausage. Serve. Lenzi used to pair the steak with Vesuvio potatoes at Danilo's.
Now, don't worry if this recipe seems too approximate. Consider Lenzi's directions as an outline — fill in with such specific details as oven temperature, cooking times and ingredient amounts — by looking in cookbooks or doing an online search for "Italian-style pepper steak" and follow the main points of that recipe.