Nella Pizzeria Napoletana
2423 N. Clark Street (GoogleMaps)
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
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.