V-licious 

A confession: We just can't stop eating at Big V's

A straight-shooting goomba like Vito Racanelli has probably made a lot of friends -- and maybe a few enemies.

You'd think his brother John, for one, would be regally pissed at him. Since 1992 John has owned and operated the Racanelli's Pizza location inside the mall-less food court known as the Market in the Loop -- directly across from where Vito opened Big V's Burger Joint last fall. Up until then, the by-the-slice biz brushed aside unworthy competitors who dared lease the counter space Big V's now inhabits with easygoing, ba-da-bing swagger. Erstwhile occupants, most recently New York Burrito, gave off weary airs from the day they were born, and sometimes suffered in quality (those burritos were kinda blargh-tasting). But Big V's, decked out with random bits of Americana, some family photos and a painted mural of Bronx native Vito riding the No. 6 train from the Big Apple to the Delmar MetroLink stop, has seemed comfy and classic from the get-go, like your favorite pair of jeans from college that miraculously still fit.

Big Vito can't even fit into jeans he bought last year. So it would stand to reason that his wife, too, would be less than thrilled with twenty-pounds-Bigger V's appetite for the tuna melts, onion rings, chili, chili dogs, chili cheese fries, cheesecake on a stick and messy, meaty burgers he slings at his no-calorie-left-behind monument to good ol' American gastronomic gluttony.

For that matter, the entire Racanelli clan (they of the aforementioned local pizza chain) might be seething since Vito renounced his marinara-infused bloodlines to go burger.

He even shuns Fitz's glass-bottled soda pop -- headquartered right down the street! -- in favor of New Jersey-crafted Boylan Bottleworks products. If you ask him why, he'll tell you without hesitation that he offers "only the best," and should you take that to mean Vito thinks Fitz's soft drinks are less than superior, well, he's not going to stop you. Just as he's not going to stop his friend Nick, an old buddy from his cooking-school days at Johnson & Wales in Rhode Island, from wearing a BoSox cap while manning the cash register. In St. Louis. On opening day.

You got a problem with that?

Suzy, a 29-year-old neuropsych grad student at Washington University, doesn't have a problem with that. Suzy is a Loop resident who first got wind of Big V's back in December, when her neighbor's kids seemed to be spending most of their winter break walking to and from Big V's between games of Halo 2. Vito's Tony Soprano-meets-Soup Nazi counter manner may faze meek-minded customers, but not Suzy. In fact, on her maiden visit to Big V's, so impressed was Vito by her rapid-fire recitation of her order that he hollered, "Now that's the way you do it!" and knocked 10 percent off her bill.

Vito has helped Suzy pack an extra few pounds onto her own frame as she's advanced from being a frequenter (two or three times a week) to a bit of an obsessive. She starts thinking about what she'll order next from Big V's, and how soon, about an hour after her last meal there. Suffice to say Suzy's never felt this way about another Loop eatery.

Suzy is me. Or at least she's the alter ego I improvised when Vito, recognizing me as a regular, introduced himself. Eventually I got so nervous about accidentally outing myself that I began sending friends into the Market to order for me, thrusting wads of singles into their hands and telling them in the disturbed pitch of an addict to bring me something from Big V's while I waited in the alley out back.

I've tried virtually everything on Big V's menu, and I have never been disappointed. Aside from the fact that I believe lettuce and tomato should come free of charge on request -- there oughta be a law; Vito jacks an extra 50 cents onto the tab for each -- Vito and I see utterly eye to eye on burger philosophy: Don't season the ground beef. Shape the patties by hand (get a load of the jagged circumference of a Big V burger). For the love of Pete, toast your buns. And dress the finished product relentlessly.

I've heard some whispers 'round the Loop that the proportions of Big V's patties are on the underwhelming side. To that I say: The Thickburger is the fat-headed Jason Giambi of the burger world, fine for a cheap thrill every once in a while but not qualified for posterity. And also: Vito piles two and three patties apiece on his signature burgers. So there.

The Animal, a triple-threat stack o' chuck assaulted by American cheese, bacon, grilled onions, barbecue sauce and roasted jalapeños -- a taunting dare of a burger -- may reduce you to barking out monosyllabic grunts of excitement. Or you may wind up like my six-foot, 220-pound friend Ryan, who got halfway through his Animal before gingerly placing the remains back on its wrapper, patting his tummy like an old geezer and murmuring concernedly, "Whoa, I don't know if I can finish this." This from a man sporting a three-inch gash along the bridge of his nose courtesy of a rugby match the previous afternoon.

The Big Daddy is a more humane burger -- just two patties, served up on grilled sourdough with melted Swiss and American cheese. It's akin to a homemade grilled-cheese sammy crossed with a burger, and like the Classic Patty Melt (two patties, Swiss, and sweet-Jesus grilled onions on grilled rye), it gets a lot of mileage and architectural support out of its choice of bread, much sturdier than a mere bun.

I have made a meal -- for two, truth be told, with leftovers -- out of V's chili cheese fries, an order so colossal that steam continues to rise from it twenty minutes after it's delivered. Spared the goopy toppings, the fries (hand cut and deep-done in peanut oil) hum with little beyond the bracing bite of salt. I have delighted in the Delmar Dog -- a jumbo-size all-beef Thurman's frank from Brooklyn smeared with relish, onion, tomato, mustard, ketchup and melted cheese -- which Vito boils because he likes the way boiled dogs taste when washed down with a bottle of Yoo-hoo, which he stocks alongside the Boylan's.

I have sat and waited as Vito specially prepared me an ahi tuna salad from his usual rotation of off-menu specials scribbled on a dry-erase board. Vito had purchased the tuna that very morning from Bob's Seafood at the other end of the Market, poached it and mixed it with hard-boiled egg, red onion, green onion, mayo and (I'd like to think) a little bit of love. It tasted awesome, and so perfectly calibrated in its tuna-to-mayo ratio, you could sculpt with it.

Some advice from a Big V's veteran: When you go, don't be intimidated by Vito's demeanor. Really, he's a pussycat. Don't be intimidated by his hamburgers, either. (What, you gonna be cowed by a dead cow?)

And tell him Suzy sent you -- and that she'd like a double burger with pickle, onion, ketchup, mustard, mayo, lettuce and tomato, to go.

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