I Monelli: Excellent Roman Pizza in Chicago
Daniel Zemans, our man in Chicago, checks in with another piece of intel on the Windy City pizza scene. Daniel also blogs about Chicagoland pizza with his friends on the Chicago Pizza Club blog. --The Mgmt.
I Monelli Trattoria Pizzeria
5019 N. Western Avenue, Chicago IL 60625 (map); 773-561-8499; imonelli.info
Getting There: Brown Line to Western; walk 3 blocks south Pizza Style: Roman; 5-, 9- and 18-inch pies Oven Type: Gas The Skinny: Roman pizza featuring a light, crisp crust made with a lot of olive oil. Good assortment of fresh toppings Price: Very reasonable. Not including tax and tip, there's no reason to spend more than $6 a person. Visa/MC/AmEx, cash
What do you get when you combine the pizza-making skills of three guys from Rome, Sardinia and Florence? Some outstanding Roman pizza in Chicago. I Monelli Trattoria Pizzeria opened in April as the joint venture of two people who had previously been affiliated with Pizza D.O.C., a Neapolitan pizzeria, and one of the owners of Pizza Metro, a Roman pizzeria. Together they have created a welcome addition to the Chicago pizza scene.
I Monelli is a cozy little BYOB spot in Lincoln Square. Although it's largely a neighborhood restaurant, ample evening parking and a nearly El (Western stop on the Brown Line) means that Chicagoans who do not live in the neighborhood have no excuse for not checking this place out. The dim lighting inside makes for a fairly romantic setting (and explains the odd coloring in my picture below). I think my friend and I were the only two people there not on a date, but we were there for the pizza, not the company.
The style of pizza at I Monelli will be familiar to anyone who has been to Pizza Metro. Like a Sicilian and a Grandma pie, a Roman pizza is rectangular in shape and has a thicker crust than traditional pizza. The crust on a Roman pizza is thinner than a Grandma, which is thinner than Sicilian. Cooked relatively slowly in a Blodgett oven at 400 degrees, the dough, which is 65% water, transforms into a remarkable crisp, light, airy, olive oily crust. The closest crust that I've had in New York is at Rose and Joe's in Queens (reviewed by Ed Levine here), where they call it a Sicilian slice. That version is not made to order, does not seem to have as much olive oil, and does not come with the kind of quality toppings available at I Monelli.
The sauce at I Monelli, which is made out of imported Italian tomatoes (not San Marzano), has a light sweetness and is served fairly generously for a thin crust pie. I Monelli offers nine different pre-selected combinations of toppings along with the typical choices for those who want to pick their own combinations. I opted for the potato and rosemary pizza, and it was an excellent choice. I also added sausage to it, which didn't add much to the pie.
The slices of potato are cooked in rosemary and olive oil before they are put on the pizza and covered with mozzarella cheese. The texture of the slices of browned potato was perfect—soft without being mushy. The rosemary flavored the potato well without overwhelming the pizza. The small bits of ground sausage, while tasty when isolated from the rest of the pizza, could not hold up to the rosemary and olive oil. That was disappointing, but only in that the sausage was wasted—the pizza was excellent.
Most pizzas at I Monelli come in three sizes: 5, 9 and 18 inches long (I'd guess the width is about 7 inches). The nine inches (which they call a half) was enough to feed two people. We actually had a little bit left, but even though I was full, I ate the rest as soon as I got home. It was still good at that point, but some of the crispness was gone. When the only complaint is that the leftovers don't taste as good as the pizza did when it was fresh, that's a sign that this was some good pie.