Nella Pizzeria Napoletana shows Grassano is still queen of the oven

Or, 'Don't call it a comeback'

Serious Eats Chicago contributor Daniel Zemans checks in with another piece of intel on the Windy City pizza scene. The Mgmt.

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[Photograph: Daniel Zemans]

Nella Pizzeria Napoletana

2423 N. Clark Street, Chicago IL 60614 (map); 773-327-3400;
Getting There: #22 Clark Street bus to Fullerton
Pizza Style: Neapolitan
Oven Type: Wood
The Skinny: The queen of Chicago's Neapolitan scene has not lost a step since she put Spacca Napoli on the map
Price: $8.99 to $15.99; calzones, $14.99

Spacca Napoli was not the first Neapolitan pizzeria in Chicago, but it put the style on the map in a city devoted to the decidedly more gluttonous deep dish, stuffed, and tavern-cut pizzas. Nella Grassano was the pizzaiola when Spacca Napoli opened its doors, and she ran the oven there for almost a year. When she left, Spacca Napoli continued to thrive (and is expanding soon), but fans of Neapolitan pizza in Chicago were left wondering when they could taste Grassano's work once again. Last month, the wait ended with the opening of Nella Pizzeria Napoletana, almost certainly the most anticipated pizzeria in Chicago history.

Ordinarily, I like to wait a while before reviewing new pizzerias so they have time to work out any kinks. But having attended Nella's soft opening, which was for family, friends, and any random people who happened to stop by the restaurant asking when they were opening, it was clear that there were no kinks to work out in these pizzas. That Grassano was ready to hit the ground running after a couple of years away from a professional pizza oven only seems surprising until realizing that she is a third generation pizzaiola who has been working in pizza kitchens since she was a 6-year-old kid in Lecco, Italy.

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Nella's regular menu includes seventeen different pizzas, ranging from basic traditional pies like the Marinara and the Margherita to the Diavola (spicy salami and chili flakes) and the Tonno e cipolla (tuna, onion and black olives). In addition to those pies, Nella's offers at least one special pizza every day. The Diavola is my favorite pie of those I've had so far at Nella's, but on this trip I went with the day's special. The Contadina, which is Italian for country woman or woman farmer, has mozzarella di bufala and smoked mozzarella, along with cherry tomatoes, salami and arugula. Not surprisingly, this is an outstanding pie.

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When the pizza first arrived, I was surprised at the amount of arugula and had flashbacks to my salad-heavy pies at Quartino (reviewed here). But after one bite, my fears vanished. Like every other pizza I've had at Nella's, this one was well-balanced and ridiculously flavorful. The cheese combination, which is one I had not had before worked really well. Buffalo mozzarella has a great creaminess, but can be too wet for my tastes. I've never met a smoked mozzarella I didn't like, but the smokiness often overwhelm anything paired with the cheese. On this pie, the flavor of the buffalo mozzarella tempered the smokiness and the smoked mozzarella added substance to the cheese mixture. Bottom line: The cheese combination was extraordinary.

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The crust was a perfectly cooked, well-balanced piece of bread with a noticeable amount of Sicilian sea salt. The cornicione is a little smaller than some people like and has strong elements of crisp and chew, although it does lean a little bit towards the chewier end of the spectrum. The other elements of the pizza were just as good as the cheese and the crust. The sauce is, of course, nothing but San Marzano tomatoes. The salami had great flavor and the cherry tomatoes were shockingly good on a frigid December afternoon. The Contadina is an outstanding pizza that I hope gets promoted from special to full-time menu status soon. If not, I still have about 12 of the 17 pizzas still to try and at this point I am confident that none of them will disappoint.

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In addition to the 17 Neapolitan pizzas, Nella's menu includes a Stuffed Pizze section with three calzones and a double crusted pizza called a Vesuvio. The calzones, which Grassano says she prefers to the pizzas, are packed with cheese, sauce and toppings and doused in olive oil. I opted for the Calzone Napoli, which features mozzarella and ricotta along with tomato sauce, salami, black pepper, and basil.

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Because of the very generous portions of cheese inside and the pools of olive oil that fill every indentation on top of the calzone, it can be a little messy. But when something tastes this good, a little mess is irrelevant. The two cheeses, which have very different textures, work really well together and somehow manage to avoid overwhelming the excellent salami.

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This picture from a previous visit shows the most unique pizza item at Nella's, the Vesuvio. This Neapolitan version of a stuffed pizza starts off as simply a Neapolitan pizza with an extra layer of crust on top. But as the vegetables and cheese heat up and release steam, the top crust rises and the Vesuvio takes the shape of a UFO. When a hole is poked in the top, steam pours out and the upper crust eventually settles down. Normally, the steam release is done at the table, which adds a little family fun to the delicious twist on Neapolitan pizza. The Vesuvio is only offered with one combination of toppings: tomatoes, mozzarella, mushrooms, ricotta, prosciutto cotto, arugula, shaved parmesan, basil and olive oil.

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It is worth mentioning that Nella's offers a nice variety of antipasti as well as two or three special pasta dishes every day. At the soft opening, I got to try a few different items and they were universally excellent. The Antipasto Misto (pictured) includes prosciutto crudo, salami, capocollo, green and black olives, and some firm provolone cheese. Ordinarily, I would advise against ordering a caprese salad in Chicago in the winter, but thanks to some olive oil and a little time in Nella's magical oven, the juicy tomatoes explode with flavor and make the caprese salad a year-round delicacy. Even better than that, and the unquestioned star of the antipasti offerings is the marinated salmon, which is bathed in white balsamic vinegar, olive oil, garlic, fresh parsley and capers.

Nella Pizza Napoletana opened to some incredibly high expectations and so far they seem very much up to the task of meeting them. Nella mans the oven for lunch and dinner seven days a week, so consistency should not be a problem. The large restaurant, which seats about 140, has been full on the weekends, but not yet overwhelmed by crowds. I was told that people haven't had to wait longer than 15 minutes or so for a table. Assuming everything continues on the current path, I'd expect those waits to get significantly longer in the very near future.


Whoa, Nella: Grassano's Return to Chicago's Pizza Scene Is Imminent
Chicago's Spacca Napoli: Good But Not Great
The Neapolitan Invasion of Chicago Continues with Antica Pizzeria
Pizza D.O.C.: Less Than a Minute from Greatness