There's one place in Melrose Park that meets all of the above criteria.
The Italians say "mangia" when they want more of something, and it seems like that's been the rallying cry at Danny's for years, because not only has the restaurant gained a loyal following for its big portions and great prices - it has been doing so with delicious food and a couple of unique weekly specials.
The food is simple, and the portions are unapologetically grandiose, but you won't find any of the regulars complaining at the super-casual Danny's Cafe and Deli in Melrose Park. Owner Paula Dote works the room, back-slapping friends and shuttling between the dining room and the kitchen. Her Calabrian roots have meshed with her husband's Sicilian heritage, resulting in a menu that is purely personal.
"I wanted to make neckbones, I wanted to make my gravy, my lasagna, the meatballs. I wanted to make a dinner. I wanted to make exactly what i did in my kitchen at home," said Dote.
Her meatballs are exquisite - ground chuck combined with garlic, parmesan, eggs and breadcrumbs - but rather than served as spheres, they are smashed on the flat top grill and cooked like a sausage patty. Jammed between excellent bread from a local baker, marinara arrives alongside. Rigatoni is the size of a child's fist; it bathes in a sauce made from heavy cream, tomatoes and vodka, and could literally feed a family of four. Same goes for the neckbones. Served only twice a week, they're roasted for an hour, then sauteed with onions, homemade marinara and spices for a couple of hours longer. The result is a deeply-intense, porky meal that requires two hands.
"My recipes are my mother-in-law's and my mother's - both wonderful cooks. Both of them were wonderful cooks," said Dote. "I put my own little touch on all of them, and it worked."
Pasta fagioli is an excellent starter - loaded with beans and veggies. There's also a giant steamed artichoke, stuffed with breadcrumbs. Two of Dote's better-known dishes include sauteed romaine lettuce with crumbled sausage and a solid square of polenta doused in a chunky tomato sauce. Desserts - not surprisingly - are familiar: super-rich tiramisu and homemade cannoli lead the pack of predictable options. This isn't cutting edge stuff, and it's certainly not aspiring to be anything it's not. It is, however, a reasonably-priced, family-friendly option that never goes out of style.
"Everything is pretty much what I ate growing up, what Carl ate growing up, and what my children ate and still eat," said Dote.
The restaurant also offers delivery and catering, and it could be a good call if you're planning a Memorial Day picnic.
Danny's Cafe & Deli
1419 N. 15th Ave., Melrose Park