Whoa, Nella: Grassano's Return to Chicago's Pizza Scene Is Imminent

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[Photographs: Franco Grassano]

Nella Pizzeria Napoletana

2423 N. Clark Street, Chicago, IL 60614 (map); 773-327-3400; pizzerianella.com
Getting There: #22 Clark Street bus to Clark and Fullerton, walk ½ block north
Pizza Style: Neapolitan
Oven Type: Wood

Since Spacca Napoli opened in early 2006, it has been, hands down, the best Neapolitan pizzeria in Chicago. At some point in the next few weeks, I predict that will no longer be the case. The reason: Nella Grassano, Spacca Napoli's original pizzaiola, the woman who taught most of Spacca's staff how to make pizza, is opening Nella Pizzeria Napoletana.

To say that Nella Grassano has pizza in her blood would be an understatement. She is a third-generation pizzaiola who has been involved in the pizza-making process since she started doing pizza prep work as a 6-year-old in her father's pizzeria in Lecco, a town about 30 miles from Milan. While two of her brothers and multiple cousins have gone on to open pizzerias, when they were all kids, Nella was by far the most passionate of the bunch when it came to devotion to pizza. Her father was happy to encourage her, and by the time she was 13 or 14, she was working as a pizzaiola in his pizzeria. [Photos of the oven build-out, after the jump.]

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The new restaurant, which Nella is going to run with her husband, Franco, as well as Scott Harris of Francesca fame, is going to have 23 pizzas on its permanent menu as well as some specialty pies. In addition, Nella will serve up at least three additional members of the pizza family. There will be two or three different calzone fritos, which are fried calzones, more commonly known in this country as pizza puffs or panzerotti. Nella is also going to make meza luna, which is a cross between a Neapolitan pizza and a calzone. And finally, she will introduce Chicago (and perhaps the country?) to the Vesuvio, a Neapolitan version of a stuffed pizza that will have a bottom and top crust, sealed together. When the plate arrives at the table, the server will cut out a piece of the top crust, at which point eager diners will be treated to an eruption of cheese and sauce.

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The oven itself is a point of personal pride for Grassano. Through her father, she reached out to three oven builders in Naples, a 70-year-old man and his two nephews, and brought them to Chicago to build an oven out of tufo, an Italian brick made from volcanic ash, and volcanic sand. Grassano is particularly proud of the fact that the dome was built right in her shop, brick by brick, which is apparently pretty rare in the brick oven pizza world as the domes tend to be built separately and then added onto the base.

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The current plan is for Nella Pizzeria Napoletana to open in the first or second week of November. When it does, Nella will cook every pizza served for lunch and dinner seven days a week, making pies for the 120-130 people the restaurant will hold. There will be no delivery, but carry-out will be an option, though if one opts to take their pizza to go, they will be encouraged to try a bite in the restaurant so they can see what the pie is supposed to taste like.

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South siders who don't want to go up to Lincoln Park for their Neapolitan fix need only be a little patient. The Grassano/Harris team are so confident that the Nella Pizza Napoletana will be a success that they are already working on their second location, which will be on Taylor Street in Little Italy. No pizzaiolo/a has been hired for that location yet, but Nella hopes to keep it in the family by getting one of her cousins to leave Italy for Chicago.