Trattoria Roma: Come for the Pie, Stay for the Cake

Serious Eats Chicago contributor Daniel Zemans 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.

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[Photographs: Daniel Zemans, except where indicated]

Trattoria Roma

1535 N. Wells Street, Chicago IL 60610 (map); 312-664-7907
Getting There: Brown Line to Sedwick, walk ¼ mile east to Wells and then ½ block south; or take #22 or #36 bus to Clark Street and North Avenue, walk 2 short blocks east to Wells, then ½ block south.
Pizza Style: Thin crust
Oven Type: Gas
The Skinny: Excellent toppings, quality ingredients and a unique, delicious crust make for some excellent pizzas at this Old Town favorite
Price:All pizzas are 9-inch and range from $7 to $11 Website:trattoriaroma.com Notes: Private party room upstairs holds up to 70 people

The Old Town neighborhood in Chicago has seen a lot of changes over the past few decades. In the 1950s and '60s it was the center of the city's arts and anti-establishment scenes when places like the Old Town School of Folk Music and The Second City opened there and the neighborhood served as a central gathering spot for Hippies and Yippies. In the 1970s, a large percentage of residents hopped on the white flight bandwagon and the neighborhood began, while certainly not a downward spiral, definitely a decline.

Some neighborhood institutions pulled out, but the location was too conveniently located to stay down for long. A comeback began in the '80s, and today it is one of the city's trendiest areas, albeit one that still is home to numerous neighborhood's institutions leftover from its bohemian past. Cigar and pipe smokers from all over the city still go to Up Down Cigar, and The Second City and Zanies are still going strong as two of the country's comedy centers. Still, there also is the Old Town Ale House, which made national headlines last year when it unveiled a nude painting of Sarah Palin. Somewhere in the middle of '60s and the new sits Trattoria Roma, a small Italian spot that has been dishing out excellent pizzas since 1985.

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Laura Zalloni and her late husband, Franco, opened Trattoria Roma in 1985 just a few doors north of its current location. Franco was from Rome and is the person behind most of the pizza recipes, but Laura, who grew up in Chicago's Little Italy, is no pizza slouch either. I had two pizzas on my most recent visit and the first one is actually Laura's creation—the Pizza della Casa, which has sausage, onions and mascarpone cheese in addition to mozzarella and sauce. This pizza is outstanding and every time I have it I wonder why more pizzerias don't use moscarpone as an ingredient. The rich, creamy lightly sweet treat adds some great depth to the texture. I can see why it might be a little much for Neapolitan or for particularly delicate cracker crust pies, but any pizza with moderate substance can avoid being overwhelmed by mascarpone.

20091007TrattoriaRomaSausageSide 2.jpgThe sausage at Tratteria Roma is very good with a nice amount of seasoning and chewiness. The onions were fresh and added good flavor and some nice light crunch that was a particularly nice textural counterpoint to the creaminess from the mascarpone and the substantial amount of good quality mozzarella. The sauce, which was not particularly noticeable without isolating it, was fresh and well-seasoned; I would have liked a little more of it.

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[Photograph: Kelly Daily]

The second pizza I had was the Quattro Formaggi, which came with mozzarella, mascarpone, blue and Swiss cheese. That's four cheeses, three of which—mascarpone, blue and Swiss—that are rarely seen on pizza. The unique combination of cheeses, which included a wide spectrum of flavors and textures, worked incredibly well. I'd only recommend a whole pie to people who really like cheese, but for my tastes, this was one excellent pie.

20091007TrattoriaRomaUpskirt 2.jpgThe crust at Trattoria Roma is excellent. It's a little thicker than is typical of Roman cracker crust, but given the quality and how much cheese comes on most of the pizzas, the extra heft is a very good thing. The texture of the crust is a consistently perfect combination of crisp and chew. Other than the corn meal on the bottom, there is nothing out of the ordinary about the ingredients in the crust, but Franco Zalloni figured out how to do some very good work with flour, water, eggs, yeast and an ordinary Blodgett oven.

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On my three previous visits to Trattoria Roma, I tried and failed to get a slice of Nonna Cake, a version of ricotta cheesecake made by Laura's 93-year-old grandmother, Florence Lynest. Ms. Lynest visits her granddaughter in Old Town every Thursday, spending part of the day getting pampered and part making a very limited supply of cake. For this visit, I called the day before I was thinking about going to find out if there was any cake available. I was told there was only one piece left, but after I explained my record of bad cake luck, the person on the phone offered to hold it for me until the next night.

I'm usually not a huge cheesecake fan, but this cake is excellent. The cake, which is a cross between a ricotta cheesecake and a light but rich pound cake, is somehow both light and rich at the same time. The sweet, creamy cheesecake is balanced by the soft pound cake components, and all of it is softened by a slight tanginess from the ricotta.

When Franco and Laura Zalloni opened Trattoria Roma in 1985, they were taking a couple of risks. First, they were opening a gourmet thin crust pizzeria in a city that was in the midst of embracing stuffed pies. And they did it in a neighborhood that was nowhere near the safe investment that it is today. Fortunately for all of us, Trattoria Roma is still going strong today and is definitely worth a visit. I've heard from reliable sources that the rest of the menu is also excellent, but the pizza is so good that I have yet to give anything else there a shot.

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