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June 23, 2006

Spacca Napoli

Dominic Armato
Becoming more knowledgeable about any art form is a double-edged sword. With deeper understanding comes deeper appreciation, and with deeper appreciation comes deeper enjoyment. The downside is that the more you experience, the harder it is to find art that really thrills you. But the upside is that when you do find something that inspires you, it's all the more enjoyable. Over the past two nights, I've had the rare pleasure of trying a new restaurant that was absolutely spectacular in every possible regard. It isn't flashy. Quite the contrary, it's a wonderfully humble little establishment, but it's humility that's grounded in passion. The owner, Jonathan Goldsmith, and his pizzaiola, Nella Grassano, have given Chicago a wonderful gift in the form of Spacca Napoli.

Dominic Armato
Chicago is, of course, a pizza town. Yet I know many Chicago foodies who treat Chicago-style pizza with a certain level of condescension. I absolutely do not count myself among them. It's true, the heavy, gooey deep dish that Chicago is known for doesn't exactly have the elegance of an Italian trattoria-style pizza, but it's a wonderful foodstuff in its own right. That said, while I would never call a Neapolitan pizza inherently superior, I wouldn't hesitate to call it nearer and dearer to my heart. There's a beautiful simplicity and freshness to a Neapolitan pizza. As food art goes, it's a highly evolved form, minimal, unpretentious and satisfying. In this sense, the restaurant itself reflects its specialty in every way.

Dominic Armato
It's the kind of place that feels like home, the kind of place you want to have a block away, where you can roll out your front door and stroll over to have a simple, casual, satisfying dinner once or twice a week. Located in Ravenswood, it's near a strip of Montrose that's populated by a number of cute restaurants. But instead of residing on the main drag, it's set back a block, gently tucked into a residential neighborhood away from the bustle. A number of tables sit outside, shaded by a canopy of umbrellas emblazoned with "Birra Moretti". Inside, the vibe is lively and energetic without crossing the line into chaotic. Bathed in warm tones and evening sunlight, it captures the feeling of so many Italian trattorie; small family operations that invite you into their second home. The room is backed by a large, open kitchen, which is dominated by the heart of the operation, a large wood-fired oven adorned with mosaic tiles. It was brought in from Italy, beautifully decorated by the owner's wife, and is reputedly capable of reaching a volcanic 1200º.

Dominic Armato
The menu is blissfully simple. Goldsmith resists the urge to overreach, limiting the selection to a handful of simple antipasti, the pizze, and a few dolce. The antipasti include grilled and marinated vegetables, light salads, cured meats and a couple of specials; salmone marinato and seppie arroste on the nights we stopped by. The regular pizza menu is a humble dozen, split down the middle into red and white varieties, including simple combinations of ingredients like mozzarella, both fior di latte and bufala, fresh basil, prosciutto, sausage and fresh arugula. The pizza specials, four on both nights, reach a little deeper, but do not aspire to anything beyond tradition. We saw specials like mare e monti, quattro stagioni and primavera. I asked if my most frequently craved pizza, tonno e cipolle, ever makes the specials list. I was told that it does, which means I'm now forced to call every morning, ready to pounce. For after dinner, there is a small list of Italian standards, including gelati, sorbetti and tiramisu, as well as a handful of the bitter digestive drinks that Italians love to have at the end of their meals.

Dominic Armato
For antipasti, we tried their antipasto misto, the caprese, the melanzane and the seppie arroste special. All four were simple dishes that depended entirely on ingredient sourcing and a light hand. All were delicious. The antipasto misto was a simple plate with prosciutto crudo, capicolla and salami, along with a bit of cheese and some lightly cured olives. I'm not certain what type of mozzarella was used for the caprese, but it was sweet and milky and accompanied by a light, fruity olive oil. I was gratified to see that they refused to supply the massive beefsteak slices of tomatoes that Americans expect (to their own detriment), and instead used a vibrant, potent, smaller variety of tomato with a far superior flavor. The melanzane (eggplant) was cooked soft and marinated, dark, tomatoey, smoky and very full-flavored. My favorite of the bunch, however, was the seppie. Right off the bat, I was thrilled that they'd even bother to serve cuttlefish. As cephalopods go, squid is wonderful and eminently more popular, but I'm of the opinion that cuttlefish is grossly underrated and it was nice to see it get some love. The seppie had just the right texture, lightly chewy but not tough. It was roasted, chilled and then served with fresh arugula and dressed with olive oil and fresh lemon. It was the kind of simple, delicious cold seafood that is ubiquitous in Italy and so rare in the States.

Dominic Armato
From the antipasti, it was on to the main event which, despite my impossible expectations, impressed in every possible way. Though it's often the unsung hero, a pizza like this is built up from the bread. A Neapolitan pizza can only be as good as its crust, and Spacca Napoli's is exceptional. The crust is light and chewy, thin in the center and thick and bubbly at the edges. The underside is perfectly browned, with small, intermittent patches of char, and the outer edge is dotted with bubbles that have risen and burned, providing more texture and character. It's the result of the incredibly hot oven, which cooks the pizzas in about 60-90 seconds. I'm told the mozzarella is shipped in from Naples, though unconfirmed I have to believe the tomatoes are San Marzano, and all of the produce is at the peak of freshness and treated with a light hand, if at all. The center of the red varieties has attracted some undeserved controversy. I have heard some dub it "underdone", "wet" or "soggy". However, I'm of the opinion that these people need to expand their concept of what makes a good pizza. I love the wet center of a Neapolitan pizza. It brings textural contrast in the form of a bit of squishy deliciousness at the heart of the dish. Uniformly crisp crust can be wonderful as well, but as a standard it's vastly overrated.

Dominic Armato
The red we tried was the funghi, with a light and juicy tomato sauce, sliced mushrooms, huge leaves of fragrant basil and moist, melty fior di latte mozzarella. Everything came together exactly as it should. The prosciutto e rucola was cooked with a thin layer of Prosciutto di Parma, then topped with substantial pile of stunningly fresh arugula, a drizzle of olive oil and fresh parmesan shavings. Another white we sampled was the salsiccia e broccoletti, the star of which, to my surprise, wasn't the sausage, but rather the broccoli rapini, which had been sauteed to develop a pleasant bitterness that was nicely balanced by the sweet sausage. For a special, we tried the Fiorentina, which featured mozzarella, a creamy ricotta, garlic and sauteed spinach. The garlic could have easily been overpowering, but it was prepared in some manner that muted the sharpness and helped it to blend with the other flavors. This may have been my favorite. In an unfortunate misstep, we inadvertently managed to miss all of the pizzas that feature mozzarella di bufala. We'll remedy this as soon as possible.

Dominic Armato
We only tried one dessert, the tiramisu, but in keeping with our theme, I was thrilled to discover that it was a firm tiramisu that wasn't overly sweet, as opposed to the typical gloppy, cloying Americanized tiramisu. I also sampled a favorite digestivo, limoncello, and discovered that Spacca Napoli's is quite exceptional. I prefer it a little colder than it was served, but it possessed an unusually full flavor that I loved. Of course, there's no better way to end a fantastic Italian meal than with a good espresso, and theirs is delicious. It's smooth, flavorful, not overly bitter, and topped with a beautiful, rich crema. But there was one problem. On our first visit, the espresso arrived at our table... disaster!... in a glass vessel; tall, thin and tapered. It was too hot to hold, difficult to sip, and impossible to sugar without destroying the crema. It was as though a beautiful symphony had ended on a flat note. Ordinarily, I wouldn't be overly fazed by such a development, but it stood in such stark contrast to the perfection of the rest of the meal that I was saddened to see it fall just short. On our second visit, however, I went out on a limb and asked if they had any traditional espresso cups. I was told that they did, in fact, have two... their samples from the order that would be arriving shortly from Naples... and that they'd be happy to serve mine in one of them. Perfection thusly achieved, as I write tonight I'm left with a singular complaint.

Why can't Spacca Napoli, the perfect neighborhood joint, reside in MY neighborhood?

Comments

I couldn't agree more. I have been getting takeout pizza from Spacca Napoli once a week for the last four months. It's is outstanding pizza, far superior to most of the competition.

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