Serious Eats Chicago contributor Daniel Zemans checks in with another piece of intel on the Windy City pizza scene. --The Mgmt.
3350 N. Harlem Avenue, Chicago, IL 60634 (map); (773) 804-9024; caponiespizza.com
Getting There: #77 Belmont bus to Harlem or #90 Harlem bus to Roscoe
Pizza Style: Thin
Oven Type: Wood-burning
The Skinny: Nothing too exciting, but decent thin crust and good panzerotti
Price: $15.50 for 14" Specialty Pizza; panzerotti start at $5.95
While the Little Italy near UIC may have a longer history, but it's quite possible the better destination for Italian food is in the smaller Little Italy that has grown along a 2-mile stretch of Harlem Avenue. Both neighborhoods have gems worthy of repeat visits by any serious eater: the original Al's Beef and Mario's in the original and Riviera Italian and American Foods along with Caputo's in the western version.
While there were some wood-burning ovens in Chicago many decades ago, until the recent national pizza boom, they were few and far between in the area. In 1996, well before Spacca Napoli reintroduced the city to Neapolitan pizza, Caponie's Trattoria on Harlem Avenue opened and was dishing out pies from a wood-burning oven. On my previous visits, I was impressed with Caponie's thin crust pizza, but unfortunately when I visited for this post, the pie wasn't quite up to par.
While I'm typically a big fan of toppings, I was in the mood for simplicity at Caponie's and went with what they call the "Margherita Napoletana," which is one of ten specialty pies offered along with a build-your-own option. The Margherita is topped with hand crushed plum tomato sauce, garlic, basil and fresh mozzarella and is served on a "paper thin crust." The crust was actually better than it looked. It was incredibly thin and had no cornicione whatsoever, but it managed a nice amount of crispness (though perhaps a bit too much chew.) The fresh mozzarella was generously applied, which was a good thing, since it was the best part of the pizza.
The sauce, which is different on the Margherita than on the other pizzas, was loaded with so much sprinkled parmesan that is actually obscured the tomato flavor. But to explain the real flaw of the pizza I have to channel my inner Gianlica and say that garlic and mozzarella DO NOT GO TOGETHER! I don't usually buy into that as a firm rule, but at Caponies's, clumps of minced garlic destroyed the flavor of everything it touched.
In addition to the thin crust pies, Caponie's also offers deep dish and stuffed pizzas, along with panzerotti. I knew from previous visits that the deep dish and stuffed pies were not worth eating, but the panzerotti had been good to me. They come baked or fried, and I went with the latter (with sausage.) Deep fried pockets of cheese, sausage and sauce pretty much always make me happy.
The crust was a shade too chewy aside from a very thin crisp outer shell, but other than that it was pretty delicious. And really, how could it not be? Heavily seasoned good-quality Italian sausage sitting in a pool of melted mozzarella and sauce is never going to be a bad thing. But as much as I enjoyed the panzerotti, it's not quite enough to get me to come back to Caponie's again.