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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Pizzeria da Nella Cucina Napoletana [Meeting #109]

Pizzeria da Nella
1443 W. Fullerton Ave. (Google Maps)
Chicago, IL 60614
(773) 281-6600

CPC filled just one table at Pizzeria da Nella on June 14, 2012.

For a pizza town as outstanding as Chicago, there are surprisingly few well known pizzamakers. There's certainly no known deep dish piemaster of note actually doing the cooking (though I have no doubt that both Marc and Rudy Malnati can make a great pie). Same goes for most thin crust places - Pat's not cooking at Pat's (CPC review here) and there's no Vito or Nick slinging pizzas at Vito & Nick's (CPC review here). And at Spacca Napoli (CPC review here), owner Jonathan Goldsmith does a great job as a host and he's been overseeing the best Neapolitan operation in Chicago for six years, but he's not cooking pizzas.

But then there's Nella Grassano, the best known pizza craftsman in town. There's no question that Grassano can make stellar Neapolitan pizzas. She ran the kitchen at Spacca Napoli when it opened but then left after  a falling out with Goldsmith. A little less than 3 years ago, she reappeared on the scene with Nella Pizzeria Napoletana (CPC review here). With a Lincoln Park location, the financial backing of Scott Harris, and more advance press than perhaps any pizzeria in Chicago history, all seemed to be going her way. But then she and Harris's relationship soured and that was that.

None of this is intended as a knock on Grassano at all; I have no idea what happened in either situation. What I do know is that her skills are undeniable and now, with the opening of Pizzeria da Nella in Lincoln Park, she has quietly returned to the scene and is once again demonstrating that, like her father and grandfather before her, making pizza is what she was meant to do. This time, the money is coming from a much more silent partner, the owners of Tsuki, a sushi restaurant in the same location that shut down over two years ago.

The restaurant is on Fullerton, just west of Southport, one of those locations that's close to a lot, but isn't going to see a lot of foot traffic. Nella and her husband Frank have never wanted for confidence in abilities, but apparently confident that her pizza is good enough to draw crowds, Nella and her husband Frank have built out a space that holds at least 50 people inside and, when the weather permits, another 40 outside. Nella brought in her brother to help out with the non-pizza items, but she's going to make every pie in the gorgeous tile-covered oven built by a crew flown in from Naples.

The 3 1/2 CPC members who attended this pre-heat-wave meeting opted to take advantage of the mild early summer evening and sit outside. We were there on a Thursday night with great weather and and saw about 30 or so customers. Admittedly knowing nothing about the restaurant's finances, I have a significant fear that they're going to have to do better than that if Nella's third time is going to be her charm. For the sake of Chicago's pizza scene, I certainly hope so because Nella Grassano's pizzas are as good as ever.

The Bufalina, a Margherita but with buffalo mozzarella rather than fior di latte, serves as a reminder of how good even the simplest pizza can be. Nella is a fervent nationalist when it comes to pizza. She thinks that the tomatoes, the mozzarella, and the flour of Italy are all better than their American counterparts. While I and countless people who have done blind taste tests strongly disagree, I couldn't help but think she might be right while eating this pizza. The bright, sweet, and lightly acidic sauce, applied very generously for the style, is exceptional. Seriously, I'd consider sipping a glass full of this stuff. Mozzarella is not a cheese that's ever going to win a flavor competition but this rich and creamy buffalo mozz is impeccable.

But, not surprisingly, it's the crust where Nella's skill really shines through. The bottom crust is sturdier than you'll typically find at places bearing the seal of approval as "autherntic" Neapolitan pizza from the pizza police, and the end crust is not quite as high as is typical of the style. But both those deviations are just fine with me; this lightly crisp and slightly chewy crust, with noticeable hints of salt and yeastiness, is simply outstanding bread.

That said, the crust wasn't perfect. Upon close visual inspection, a thin line of undercooked dough is evident in the middle of the end crust. None of us noticed a negative effect while eating the pizza before or after discovering the flaw, but it does raise two questions. First, if this is a consistent problem when the restaurant isn't particularly busy, what's going to happen if it ever takes off? Second, how good can the crust be? Thanks to my other experience eating Nella's pizza, I actually know the answer to the second question is that it can be as good as any Neapolitan crust I've had. Unfortunately, I don't have an answer to the second question. I had good luck with her pizzas in the past, but some people whose opinions I respect had different experiences at Nella Pizzeria Napoletana.

We stayed relatively unadventurous with our remaining pizzas. The Diavola, which comes with spicy salami, red pepper flakes, and a dose of olive oil (Italian, of course), was excellent. The spicy salami, which was basically really delicious pepperoni, stood out as by far my favorite topping of the night. Largely that's because the sausage on the Funghi E Salsiccia, our third pizza of the evening, was so pedestrian. The debate over whether the United States or Italy is the leading pizza country will likely never be resolved, but there's no question Chicago drops a serious ass-whooping on Naples when it comes to making sausage. So in fairness to Grassano, who's as committed to Naples as the CPC is to Chicago, the sausage she's serving is her take on what you'd find in southern Italy.

Weak sausage and very slight misfires on the crust aside, it was clear with each bite that Pizzeria da Nella is the only threat in town to Spacca Napoli's crown as best Neapolitan pizzeria in Chicago. Whether or not Nella can surpass the place is a question for a future day. I only hope this restaurant sticks around long enough for the answer to matter.