Topped with prosciutto, arugula ,cherry tomatoes and shaved Parmesan. (Lenny Gilmore/Redeye )
Pizzeria da Nella Cucina Napoletana
1443 W. Fullerton Ave. 773-281-6600
Rating: !!!! (out of four)
Deep dish is as authentically Chicago as Lake Shore Drive traffic, but in the past few years, Neapolitan-style pizza has given it a run for its money. A big reason for its popularity is the pies at Spacca Napoli, a Ravenswood restaurant that opened in 2006 with pies by Nella Grassano, a Naples native who started baking in her family's pizzeria when she was just 12 years old.
After leaving Spacca Napoli in 2007, Grassano reappeared briefly at Nella Pizzeria Napoletana before that restaurant closed. Now, Grassano is back (hopefully for good this time) at her own Lincoln Park restaurant, Pizzeria da Nella Cucina Napoletana. I stopped in find out whether the pies are as big a mouthful as the name.
The crust: Thanks to the wood-burning oven at the center of the open kitchen, the crust is baked to a uniform golden brown, adding a crunch without drying out the dough. Each slice has a firm base and a pleasant chew, without the wet center that's traditional to other Neapolitan pies. The dough is rustic and flavorful without distracting from the high-quality toppings.
The sauce: A tangy, slightly sweet tomato sauce forms the base of half the menu's pizzas, and though it looks like it's spread on the thin side, it packs just the right amount of bright, ripe tomato flavor. White pizzas all begin with an olive oil and mozzarella base, then switch it up with other cheeses such as parmesan, emmental or a soft, mild cacciota.
The toppings: Combinations are mostly classic, but that doesn't make them boring. Grassano's margherita ($11.99) could serve as the textbook example of this ubiquitous pie; it's even more flavorful when topped with imported buffalo's milk mozzarella ($13.99). Both meat and veggie lovers can compromise with the prosciutto e rucola ($13.99), a white pie topped with heaps of wilted arugula and ribbons of sliced prosciutto, finished with a surprisingly smoky mozzarella cheese. Vegetarians have plenty of cheese- and spinach-topped options.
Other stuff: While a whole pie would certainly satisfy even a seriously big appetite, the menu offers a dozen antipasti and salad options ($6.99-$14.99). If you're way past hungry, look to stuffed pizzas such as the Lavezzi ($17.99), which rolls grilled eggplant and smoked mozzarella inside crust topped with prosciutto, arugula, cherry tomatoes and shaved parmesan. To drink, the wine list has a number of bottles in the $25-$35 range, or you can order one of the premium bottled Italian beers for $8-$14.
Bottom line: At her new pizzeria, Grassano proves she's still got the pizza mojo that put Spacca Napoli on the map, and if anything, a pause from restaurants has only recharged her batteries. Neapolitan pies probably won't completely replace deep dish as Chicago's signature pie anytime soon, but this new gem makes a strong case for it.
Kate Bernot is a RedEye special contributor.