Serious Eats Chicago contributor Daniel Zemans checks in with another piece of intel on the Windy City pizza scene. —The Mgmt.
800 N. Dearborn, Chicago IL 60610 (map); 773-394-6900; castelgandolfopizzeria.com
Getting There: Red Line to Chicago, walk one block west
Pizza Style: Thin crust
Oven Type: Coal
The Skinny: Chicago's second coal-oven pizzeria serves up some very good pies in a location that may doom it
Price: Pizzas start at $14 for red, $15 white
When Jane and Jakub Jasnak went to Italy two years ago, the trip had two highlights: their first Neapolitan pizza and mass with the Pope in Castel Gandolfo. Upon their return to the States, the two got to work at opening a pizzeria. They had plenty of experience with the food industry as the owners of JJ Sausage, a two-location chain that features homemade sausage and Italian beef. But pizza was something they hadn't done yet, so some research was necessary. After six months of making pizza four nights a week at home, they had settled on their crust, sauce, and mozzarella recipes and were ready to open Castel Gandolfo.
Inspired by a trip to New York, where Jakub visited a few pizzerias, including Lombardi's and Grimaldi's, the Jaznaks decided to go with a coal oven for their pies, which lean more toward New York–style than Neapolitan. Incidentally, that oven makes Castel Gandolfo only the second coal-oven pizzeria in town. After slightly tinkering their dough recipe to account for the much higher heat in their new oven, the Jaznaks, who own the place with Jakub's brother Pavol, opened the restaurant last August.
Castel Gandolfo's regular menu has no preselected combinations of toppings, but there are five specials that do not change all that often. I was tempted by some of the more interesting toppings (grapes!), but ended up going for one of the specials, the mushroom pizza. That pie consisted of homemade mozzarella, goat cheese, crimini and portabello mushrooms sautéed in merlot, and onions caramelized in merlot.
The mozzarella was noticeably fresh and was thinly spread across the pie. The goat cheese added some welcome salt to the pizza, while the fresh mushrooms brought some good flavor and, in the case of the Portobello, some nice meatiness. But the real star were the onions caramelized in merlot, a flavor I'd never had before but would very much like to try again.
The crust, which was clearly heavily influenced by Jakub's research expedition to New York, did not have as much char as I expect from a coal oven cooking between 800 and 900 degrees. But the lack of black is merely a cosmetic issue; the very good crust had a nice crisp outer layer and a very chewy interior.
The northeast corner of Dearborn and Chicago has not been kind to restaurants. It's a busy intersection conveniently located near public transportation and within walking distance of major shopping and tens of thousands of residents. But the block or two around it doesn't have a whole lot going on, and there are plenty of restaurants closer to the aforementioned public transportation stops, shopping, and housing. And so in just the last few years three restaurants have all come and gone on that corner. I have no idea if Iggy's, Santa Fe Café, and the Chicago Rib House were any good, but I do know that if Castel Gandolfo doesn't make it, the blame will definitely fall on the location, as this place turns out some good pizza.
When I was there on Monday night, there was only one other table occupied (the place seats 40) and I saw no evidence of a single carry-out order or delivery. Homesick New Yorkers who currently get their fix at Santullo's will be especially happy with Castel Gandolfo. The restaurant has already cut back on its hours, no longer serving lunch during the winter. Get there now before it's too late.