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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Nella Pizza Napoletana [Meeting #90]

Nella Pizzeria Napoletana
2423 N. Clark Street (GoogleMaps)
Chicago, IL
773.327.3400

CPC invaded Nella Pizzeria Napoletana on 12/17/09.

Nella Grassano has become a Chicago foodie superstar. After gaining much notice with her time as Spacca Napoli's original pizzaiola, she left with plans to open her own restaurant. A product of both current trends and the success at Spacca Napoli left Grassano looking at much more crowded field when she made her return to the scene. However, she has one characteristic that a lot of the newer places making Neapolitan or Neapolitan-inspired pizza lack; she's actually Italian. Not only that, but she comes from a pizza-making Italian family. She's been making pizzas since she was a child. Not only that, but she has an Italian accent when speaking English. Chicago waited with bated breath until she opened at the end of November.

With the closing of nearby My Pie, there was a pizza void in Lincoln Park for a restaurant that could seat over 100 people. As always, the oven draws your eyes and is beautifully decorated. CPC member and Slice contributor MCH has written an excellent piece on the craftsmanship of the oven. It has been open for a few weeks now and, from what we could tell, is running smoothly. They take reservations for groups of ten people or more and they have a semi-private back room by the oven that can accommodate two large groups. While you wait, enjoy their complimentary fried dough available near the entrance. We were seated quickly and gazed upon the menu. After a few drinks - they have a variety of wines and a lackluster beer list with the usual Italian offerings - we ordered the following pizzas:

  • Bufalina - tomato sauce, buffalo mozzarella, olive oil, and basil
  • Diavola - tomato sauce, mozzarella, olive oil, basil, spicy salami, red chili flakes
  • Funghi e Salsiccia - tomato sauce, mozzarella, mushrooms, sausage, olive oil, and basil
  • Mare e Monti - tomato sauce, mozzarella, porcini mushrooms, baby shrimp, parsley, and olive oil
  • Napoli - tomato sauce, anchovies, olive oil, mozzarella, and olive oil
  • Vesuvio, a layered stuffed pizza - ricotta, tomato sauce, mozarella, mushrooms, arugula, prosciutto, parmesan, basil, and olive oil
  • The special, which was the Sorrentino (white pie with arugula, olive oil, cherry tomatoes, basil, and buffalo mozzarella) with sweet salami added
As you would expect, the pizza comes out rather quickly and uncut. They provide you with pizza cutters so you can cut it as you wish. I wish they had just been cut for us, but it was nice to appreciate it before it was cut and also to have the option to cut it as we wished. Perhaps they gave it to us because we were in such a large group.

I'll comment on my favorite pizza, the Diavola. It features an incredibly tasty salami that would be a great meal with just some bread. It is generously distributed across the pizza with chunks of fresh mozzarella cheese. The crust has a buttery/oil flavor and just a hint of salt. This noticeable role of a fat in the crust is what made it so great. It was perfectly cooked and didn't overwhelm any of the toppings. It was crisp on the outside, soft and airy on the inside with balanced texture. This pizza is surprisingly spicy and as a fan of spicy food, I loved this departure from the usual flavors of Neapolitan pizza. Her sauce is just tomatoes with a small amount of salt. The San Marzano tomatoes don't really need much else to be an excellent acidic counterpoint to the cheese, bread, and meats on her pizza.

The Vesuvio is her foray into "stuffed" pizza. Probably my least favorite pizza, it had some solid components that didn't come together. It's a mix between a calzone and pot pie. Essentially, the stuffing becomes a soupy mixture that is difficult to eat. I can overlook that, but it was also my least favorite topping combination. The ricotta and mozzarella became very clumpy. Also, ours was very asymmetrical. This is not typically a big deal, particularly in this style of pizza, but it did cause the crust to cook unevenly at different parts. We did not get the expected puffy pizza which would be popped at our table. Rather, we got a semi-deflated pizza topped with a drizzle of olive oil. I do wish I had tried the calzones, because at La Madia I prefer the lunchtime calzones to their excellent pizza. I suspect Grassano's calzones are likely on the same level of quality as her pizza.

The Bufalina deserves some mention because it is essentially her margherita with buffalo mozzarella substituted for regular mozzarella. The more prominent flavor of the buffalo cheese worked well with the other simple ingredients and crust. This was probably my second favorite pizza of the night because she lets the melted cheese and sauce, which were all over the pie, be the showcase.

The service was attentive and non-intrusive during our 90 minutes at the restaurants. We ordered a variety of desserts including the canoli, pana cotta, tartufo, and profiteroles. I only tried two of them, but they were outstanding and a great cap to the evening. I think most people with a healthy appetite can eat one entire pizza by themselves. On a night with a restaurant at capacity, our food was at our table within 10 minutes of ordering. Anticipating a favorable response to the first location, a second restaurant is already in the works for Taylor Street.

Nella Pizzeria Napoletano is an excellent restaurant with some great pizzas outshining a few other offerings. They do have a liquor license and feature a nice selection of wines and a passable beer list. I felt that the Vesuvio is a mis-step on an otherwise solid menu. However, the best pizzas here were almost flawless and I plan to come back to try more pizza as well as some of their pasta and appetizers.



Nella Pizzeria Napoletana on Urbanspoon

7 comments:

  1. Nella's offers consistent pies with natural ingredients that satisfy. The exterior of the restaurant is a bit gaudy, but don't be fooled...they make some really down to earth pizza. Also, I enjoyed the way they place the napkin and utensils into a brown paper envelope; I've never seen that before.

    My favorite pizza of the night was the Diavola, with the Bufalina and Sorrentino following close behind. There was a lot of flavor as expected on the Diavola. Put salami on anything and it doesn't fail to disappoint...and this one was nice and spicy! The Bufalina was very simple and allowed me to taste the tomatoes which I didn't feel were extremely present / showcased on the other pies. Also, the cheese was outstandingly subtle and delicious. The Sorrentino also had salami on it, but not the spicy variety. I appreciated the halved cherry tomatoes and arugula accompanying the sweeter meat.

    There was a lot of bubbly crust to eat once the toppings were exhausted, but I love bread and enjoyed chewing it. I noticed that this pizza doesn't drip grease. They use olive oil which was present on top of the pizza, however nothing is used in excess that causes greasy fingers. I think this is as healthy as pizza can get. I will mention that the Vesuvio wasn't spectacular, but I really enjoyed the healthy amount of ricotta stuffed in there. However, that pizza was a bit too wet.

    If you have a normal appetite, it's easy to eat an entire pizza. I had a little room for a cannoli which I must say was really good...crispy shell and light, airy, sweet cheese!

    Nella's get an 8.5

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  2. Nella's was packed on a Thursday night. We had the back room for a larger group. I was expecting breadsticks in the envelopes, but instead I got utensils! Anyways, the pizzas come out relatively quick, which is a good thing. My favorite pizza was the Diavola, which had the right amount of heat to go with the salami. The Bufalina was a good pizza to test out quality of the basics-- the sauce, mozzarella and the crust, which all were high quality. In my youth, I used to regularly pass over margherita-style pizzas because they didn't have "toppings", but now I've come to appreciate them and the craftsmanship that goes into it. I also was one of the few people who enjoy anchovies on their pizza, and the Napoli worked well. There were only 1 or 1.5 anchovies per slice, but that was enough to balance out the saltiness. The other pizzas didn't stand out much to me, and I felt the Vesuvio was a little too soggy. This seems to be a recurring issue with these type of pizzas-- the center is usually limp and you have to eat the first few bites with a utensil. Surely there must be a technique to get around this? The crust was very good for a softer style of crust, quite chewy with balanced flavor. For dessert I had profiteroles, which were a nice way to cap off the evening. One note is that when you leave they laid out some sugared crusts probably the same as on the cannoli. I felt they were soggy, plain, and likely detracted from the restaurant, so best not to serve that as the last thing your customers eat when leaving. Overall, Nella's is a fine restaurant that with a few tweaks could be really good.

    7.0

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  3. I am not a fan of anchovies, but they were subtle (as much as anchovies can be) enough that they were a nice salty highlight to the dish. Alas, I think it'll still be another few years until I try them on my pizza again.

    I will say that the porcini mushrooms on the Mare e Monti were more flavorful than the shrimp. I thought at first we might have gotten eggplant on our pizza because it had that hearty flavor and texture akin to the purple fruit. The shrimp were not bad, but I'm still searching for a place that makes a great seafood pizza here in town.

    Based on my comments in the main review and above, I give Nella a 9.5. Maybe I'm becoming a devotee of Neapolitan pizza, but more likely it's just that this is good pizza no matter what you prefer.

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  4. Nella is in the upper tier of wood-burning pizza restaurants that I've been to. As mentioned in previous comments about these places, I generally have a difficult time equating 'value' to the food, as each pizza is commensurate in cost to a much heartier, filling cousin at some hole in the wall elsewhere on the map. Nella was impressive in that there was a decided authenticity to their pizzas, even those that weren't group favorites (which, with any luck, will continue to be fine-tuned over the years - we did come there just weeks after they began serving).

    My first piece was the Mare e Monti, which I approached with circumspection - I'd never tried a pizza with shrimp on it before. This was pretty tasty; the shrimp and mushroom combo was complimentary, and nicely offset by the contrasting pH of the sauce. The mushrooms really were savory and were just as prominent as the shrimp, if not more so. I then had the Napoli, and was surprised at how okay I was with it, not really being a big anchovy fan - this was a balanced pizza without too many of the infamous slivers of pungent, salty flavor. Up next was the Funghi e Salsiccia, which was pretty good - the sausage had A LOT of fennel, which packed the pizza with an interesting punch of flavor (albeit familiar). Then, the Diavola - this one was great! I really enjoyed the unhindered spiciness of this pie - another simple combination of flavors that played well with one another - one of the more appropriately cooked pies of the evening, too.

    At this point, I was right around half-full, which is probably where many other members were on finishing their 4th slice.

    The Vesuvio - I will say that I really liked the use of ricotta, but all told, this pizza was not nearly as exciting as my expectations had built it to be. I agree with El Prez that the innards were soupy and nondescript as a whole. More filler and comfort with this one; less adventure and stimuli for the palate. To finish things up I had two slices of the Bufalina. I really enjoyed the simple goodness of this pizza, but being a big fan of cheese, wish they had splurged for a little more of that fresh mozzarella, which was very good.

    All in all, I think Nella kept its head above the proverbial waters of criticism - great ingredients, and for the most part, good production and execution. One thing I would change is slightly crispier crusts - I'm coming to find, though, that this is just how wood-burning/Neapolitan pizzas are by design.

    Coming from a more typical school of greasy, indulgent and voluminous pizza, my score reflects an appreciation of Nella's strengths in creativity and fixin's: 7.6

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  5. We've been eating a lot of great Neapolitan pizza lately, and Nella's certainly stands out as one of the best. To assess a Neapolitan pizza as a pizza before getting bogged down in the toppings, I like to look at the Margherita. In this case we actually got the Bufalina, and it was outstanding. It might be the best around town. The texture, salt, and smokiness of the crust is just right, and Nella is pretty generous with the fresh, simple sauce, which I like. Some places skimp on the sauce to avoid overwhelming the thin crust of this type of pizza, but it gets droopy no matter what, so lay it on me. The cheese, of course, was delicious with a good level of gooeyness.

    Getting into the other pizzas, the Diavola was my favorite. That spicy salami was something else. Tender and full of flavor with a nice spicy kick. I also really enjoyed the special with the arugula, cherry tomatoes, and sweet salami. It seemed like a heaping pile of greens at first sight, but it was actually just the right amount and it went really well with the tomatoes and salami. I liked the mushrooms on their respective pies, but I thought the sausage could have used a little more flavor to keep up. It was nicely crumbled with a good texture though. I did not enjoy the anchovy pie. I am just not a big fan of anchovies outside of caesar salads, and did not like the fishy flavor that permeated each bite despite the presence of just a few actual anchovies. By contrast, I found the shrimp pizza a bit disappointing in that the shrimp had such a mild flavor. I think I liked the Vesuvio more than others, but I agree it has its messy faults and would like to try the calzones next time.

    Each slice leaves you with a lot of blank crust leftover. I cleaned my plate because I am hardcore, but I found myself wanting some extra sauce or oil to eat with the leftover crust. I wonder if the sauce and toppings could take up a little more surface area.

    Overall, I liked the simplicity of the flavor combinations, but some worked better than others.

    8.6

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  6. Anchovies kind of disgust me. Who knew? Regardless, I was pretty impressed with the pizza, and the service, at Nella Pizzeria Napoletana. We are lucky to have had so many new Neapolitan-style pizzerias open up in Chicago in the past few years, and all of these I've visited so far have been winners.

    As everyone else has pointed out, the Diavola is one hell of a solid pizza. The level of spice was surprising and welcome, but what stood out the most was the quality of the salami; I could eat the salami alone for dinner every night for a while before I got sick of it. The Bufalina was a close second for me. It's a simple pizza, but it's the simplicity that really lets you appreciate the quality; the cheese on it is a perfect creamy compliment to the tang of the red sauce and the perfect saltiness of their crust. I think that I'm the only person in the group who liked the Vesuvio, but maybe I just picked out the perfect slice of it, since it was so inconsistently cooked. I welcomed the soup of ricotta and prosciutto stuffed inside of it and might even order it again when I return to Nella's. The only other slice that stood out for me was the Mare e Monti. I think it was Adam who pointed out how the mushrooms tasted buttery, and I agree; I appreciate the attention they have given to a topping that is normally used in an uninspired way.

    Overall, I really enjoyed the pizza at Nella. They have a fantastic crust, and it's not nearly as soggy as Spacca Napoli, (though honestly I love Spacca Napoli regardless). The ingredients are all very high quality and the sauce is superb. Even though some of the slices weren't as impressive as the ones I mentioned, nothing was bad, and the Diavola pizza stayed on my mind for several days. I give Nella a 7.5.

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  7. When considering the history behind Neapolitan pizza I want to love everything that it is, in actuality though I usually don’t. Nella’s pizzeria had only been open a few weeks prior to the pizza club meeting and this was already my fourth visit. It seems that if you throw a wood burning oven in a pizzeria it is highly likely to draw attention both in the press and by word of mouth. The pies made at Nella’s deserve that attention.

    Any purest should order the Bufalina for their first experience. The creamy and delicate buffalo mozzarella blended harmoniously with the slightly acidic tomatoes. Combined with the tender lightly-charred crust, Nella’s manages to put together the best Margherita pizza I’ve had in Chicago.

    Although starting with the Bufalina seems most proper, the Diavola is bar none the best pie I’ve had at Nella’s. It is rare to find to find a spicy dish that has some punch while at the same time doesn’t leave your mouth clamoring for a glass of milk. On the first bite the salami and red chili flakes can take you by shock; by the second bite it’s nothing but smiles and amazement.

    Not being a fan of ricotta cheese on pizza I was more than skeptical before even taking the first bite of the Vesuvio. If you are fond of bland, creamy pizzas without any stand-out ingredient (other than ricotta cheese) I’d totally recommend this pie, otherwise, Yuk!
    The other pizzas eaten during the club meeting were nothing short of good. I wasn’t sure that Chicago needed another Neapolitan pizzeria before visiting Nella’s, now I wonder if the city needs Nella’s predecessors.

    9.5

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