Top 5 Neapolitan Pizzas in Chicago

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Classic Neapolitan emerging from oven at Spacca Napoli

 

They are relatively new to Chicago, these puffy, leopard-spotted beauties. For at least the past decade, Neapolitan-style pizzas have been stealing the show from other neighborhood stalwarts, due in part to their chewy, blistered imperfections. Spacca Napoli is one of the oldest (and best) examples, where the pizzaiolo/owner has committed himself to recreating pizzas as if he had a Naples address. There are always San Marzano tomatoes, typically crushed or puréed, as well as fresh mozzarella – fior di latte being a typical domestic version; buffalo milk or bufala a slightly higher grade of quality. The edges, while typically emerging from a wood-fired oven that maintains a floor temperature of 800 degrees with a dome temp somewhere near 1000 degrees, are referred to as the cornicione, and you know you’ve stumbled into a real Neapolitan gem when that outer edge is just as delicious as anything else on the pizza. In other words, if you see charred edges left on the plate, like bones from an archeological dig, that’s typically a sign the dough isn’t up to par.

VPN (Vera Pizza Napoletana) certified pizzas are usually a good sign in the window, but not always, as Serious Eats pointed out a few years ago. But in general, the ones who adhere to the strict standards abide by a certain temperature in the oven, a certain length of time in the oven and the use of specialized equipment. Of course, none of this means anything if they’re not making great dough, and all five of my picks here have an outstanding dough recipe that they guard and cherish like the Hope Diamond. The final flourish, just before serving, is a healthy drizzle of olive oil slicked across the top, along with a few fresh basil leaves.

If you’re curious as to the methodology for this Quest, check out my initial Pizza Quest post. To see all of the thin pizzas I tried, here’s my Thin Pizza A to Z. And now… my Top 5 Neapolitan Pizzas in Chicago. Prego. (Note: in all cases, the name of the restaurant is also the link to their website).

5. Panino’s Pizzaiolo

3702 N. Broadway (entrance on Waveland); 773-472-620o; also locations in Park Ridge and Evanston
Style: Neapolitan
Several specialty pies available, including ones with burrata and buffalo mozz, but went with basic margherita ($13)

Panino's

Margherita at Panino’s in Lakeview

Panino’s also has locations in Evanston and Park Ridge, but the city location is really two different restaurants within one. On the Broadway side (facing the mall), it’s a standard-issue thin and deep pizza joint, as well as by-the-slice, with pies baked in gas-fired ovens. On the Waveland side, a completely different personality emerges. Here, it’s “Panino’s Pizzaiolo,” a reference to the fact they are putting their Neapolitan hats on, and indeed, the giant red tiled, Stefano Ferrara wood-burning oven (700 degrees on the deck, 1000 degrees in the dome) has a “master pizzaiolo” spelled out in white tiles, indicating they take the pizzas a tad more seriously here. The key is their mother starter, a strain of yeast that is recycled and re-used, integrated and “fed” with more water and flour, then kneaded and aged, left to ferment, developing serious air pockets within the dough. It gets a three-day cold rise. “It’s totally different than using standard instant dry yeast,” said owner Bruno Brunetti. “It adds texture and flavor.” Just last week, in fact, their pizza with burrata cheese took #1 in the National Pizza trials in Ohio, which means their pizzaiolo won a trip to Italy where he’ll compete in The World Pizza Games (may the ovens be in your favor).

The raw dough is topped with healthy blobs of Galbani fresh mozzarella that have been drained overnight, plus zesty tomato sauce containing imported Italian plum tomatoes, lightly ground, with extra virgin olive oil and salt. As tradition dictates, a few basil leaves are added, along with a drizzle of olive oil. The margherita emerges with beautifully charred edges as well as blackened splotches above and below; there is good chew here, with wonderful texture and a homey, misshapen cornicione. “Many places are stuck on this 90-second cooking thing,” said Brunetti. “We know for a fact that there’s no possible way you can cook raw tomato and dough in 90 seconds – it just doesn’t happen. Our dough needs just a little more than usual to add crispness and more char.” My only complaint is not enough salt in the dough, because after you worked your way to the edge, and got past the last bits of cheese and sauce, the resulting plain crust just didn’t have the same craveability as versions at Spacca Napoli, Forno Rosso or even Stella Barra. That said, it’s still one helluva delicious pizza.

 

4. Dinotto Pizza e Vino

1551 N. Wells St., (312) 202-0302
Style: Neapolitan
Ate margherita ($15)

Dinotto

Margherita Pizza at Dinotto in Old Town

Thank you Reenie O’Brien King! I was getting dozens of recommendations during the Quest, and King’s – imploring me to check out Dinotto – made a strong case for their Neapolitan. First, the beautiful red tiled, wood burning oven, custom-built in Naples, sits in the back of the open kitchen, like a new Ferrari the owners get to take for a spin every few minutes. “The oven is very heavy and very big,” said owner Dino Lubbat. “When it showed up, we couldn’t get it through the front door, so we had to unpack it in the street.” The pizzas that emerge from it are nicely-blistered throughout, showing decent leopard spotting with a wonderful chew. That’s probably due to the Caputo 00 flour used to make their daily dough, with a minimum 24-hour warm rise, but typically 36 to 48 hours. “The recipe changes according to humidity levels,” said Lubbat. “We make it two days before and wait for it to rise, but if it’s too busy, you just go through [the 24-hour rise] and keep making more.” They buy curds from a Wisconsin farmer, then make their mozzarella balls in house each day. Hand-crushed San Marzanos are drained slightly, providing a zippy, brightly acidic tomato sauce that I couldn’t stop eating. More importantly, the texture of the triangular slices was spot-on – the middles were appreciably wet (like any self-respecting Neapolitan should be) but not to the point of soupiness, like Spacca Napoli in the early days. I had already eaten a few slices of pizza prior to my visit here on this particular day, but I had no problem eating half of our margherita. Would I like the edges to attain more stature and heft, with the accompanying air pockets? Sure. But I wouldn’t let that stop me from eating another pizza here.

 

3. Pizzeria da Nella

1443 W. Fullerton Ave.; 773-281-6600
Style: Neapolitan
Margherita ($12.99)

Pizza da Nella

Margherita at Pizzeria da Nella in Lincoln Park

What a pleasure it was devouring this pizza. I’m sure the ones topped with arugula or prosciutto are equally as enjoyable, but just inhaling the smell of the dough was enough for me. Made from imported 00 Italian flour, with an 8-12 hour rise (depending on the season) – baked to exact specs in the handmade, wood-burning oven that averages 800 degrees – da Nella makes one of the city’s best Neapolitan pies. It has a textbook cornicione, and these pizzas are nicely charred above and below; I loved how the middle was just thick enough to withstand the blobs of domestic whole milk fior di latte mozzarella and fresh tomato sauce made from San Marzanos. Rather then falling over limp at the first touch, the pieces actually held their shape as I brought them to my mouth. That chew! One of the hallmarks of a great pizza – and a compliment to the pizzaiolo – is not only when you finish off the interior, but devour the entire slice, all the way to the edge.

 

2. Forno Rosso

3719 N. Harlem Ave.; 773-295-5697
Style: Neapolitan
All pizzas 12” – got the margherita ($12.95)

Forno Rosso

Margherita at Forno Rosso in Dunning

Nick Nitti has been a student of Neapolitan pizza for some time, and when I interviewed him a few years ago for ABC 7, I recall him telling me how he looked up to (and visited) gurus like Chris Bianco in Phoenix, before deciding to open his own place in the Dunning neighborhood on the Northwest Side (he’s planning on opening a second location on West Randolph soon). “A lot of people say their pizza is Neapolitan these days. I have friends who get really angry over it – how could you govern anything like that?” says Nitti. “I like to keep it very traditional.” Typically, tradition means 75 seconds in the oven in Italy, but “here, customers just want that extra 10 seconds that makes a world of difference,” says Nitti.

His Caputo 00 flour is used to make a dough that rests a minimum 24 hours, and never sees a refrigerator. The cornicione here is magical and majestic: slightly charred from the heat of his wood-burning, Stefano Ferrara beehive brick oven, which is made with biscotto di Sorrento (cookies of the soil) from Mount Vesuvius. It burns up to 1000 degrees with average temps of around 800 – 900 degrees. That means pizzas arrive slightly blistered, covered in generous orbs of fresh, imported Italian fior di latte from La Mozzarella, flown in twice a week (drained and sliced) and a half dozen fresh basil leaves. The tomato sauce – San Marzano Italian Pomodoro tomatoes milled by hand with sea salt – is simple, fresh and evenly applied. The drained mozz, thin sauce application and extra 10 seconds in the oven result in slices that hold their shape when lifted. The bottom crust has a decent amount of char, as does the undercarriage, while the perimeter is soft-yet-chewy. Take a look inside that crust – you’ll see air pockets, revealing a decent amount of fermentation; this is a crust you want to finish off. One note: this is a fragile creation. Don’t get it to-go or you’ll miss the entire experience. Eat it as soon as it hits your table!

 

1. Spacca Napoli

1769 W. Sunnyside; 773-878-2420
Style: Neapolitan
Margherita ($12.50)

Spacca Napoli

Margherita at Spacca Napoli in Ravenswood

So much has been said about Jonathan Goldsmith’s Ravenswood pizzeria, most of it glowing, of course, since he lectures frequently, travels to Italy regularly, and has made the art and tradition of Neapolitan pizza his mission since he opened on the quiet corner of Sunnyside and Ravenswood 10 years ago this winter. All of the hallmarks are here: the 00 flour, the 24-hour rise, bufalina and fior di latte cheeses (plus a blend of Parmesan and Sardinian Pecorino), oozing and creamy-sweet, placed haphazardly about the hand-formed spheres, and the imported San Marzano tomatoes, crushed into sweet/acidic oblivion; the tell-tale crust – puffy and blistered with leopard spotting on the cornicione as well as the undercarriage – with a remarkable chew that comes from a long fermentation; the final flourish – a healthy perimeter drizzle of olive oil imported from Vesuvio.

Early on, I had always felt the centers were too thin and too wet (I know true Neapolitans adore this tomato-cheese puddle) and while I enjoyed the cornicione, I rarely praised the interior. Things have changed (Goldsmith says the recipe has been tweaked) and those droopy interiors are a thing of the past. The dough has a little bit more structure these days, and the other dozen or so pizzas all feature top-quality arugula, prosciutto, sausage and rapini. For those who remember my consternation at having to choose the best Italian beef between the Original Mr. Beef in Homer Glen and Johnnie’s in Elmwood Park, I’m faced with a similar conundrum here: Forno Rosso and Spacca Napoli both make excellent pizzas, and if blindfolded, I’m not sure I could tell the difference. Mangia!

Kristine Sherred also contributed reporting for this story

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