980 N. Michigan Avenue, 2nd Floor, Chicago, IL 60611 (map); 312-280-2750; spiaggiarestaurant.com
Pizza Style: Thin crust pizza doesn't fit comfortably into any category
The Skinny: Toppings range from very good to outstanding, but balance and execution issues keep these pizzas out of the top tier.
Price: Pizzas range from $14 to $19, but can go up to $60 during black truffle season
Notes: Pizzas only available during lunch
When the name Tony Mantuano is mentioned, I suppose most people don't immediately think of pizza. After all, this is the culinary mastermind behind Spiaggia, James Beard award winner for Best Midwest Chef in 2005, author of multiple cookbooks, Top Chef Master contestant, and the favorite chef of the President of the United States. But a closer inspection of Chef Mantuano's work reveals this is a man who is serious about his pizza.
The Michelin-starred Spiaggia might not have pizza on the menu, but Mantuano's four other restaurants are not similarly flawed. Terzo Piano (reviewed here) makes a pizza worthy of one of the most impressive physical restaurant spaces in Chicago; Bar Toma (introduced here, review coming in a couple of months) stars an excellent array of pizzas on a crust previously unseen in Chicago; Mangia, Mantuano's restaurant in his hometown of Kenosha, Wisconsin serves pies from a wood-burning oven; and, of course Cafe Spiaggia, the subject of this review, offers pizza on its lunch menu.
There are five permanent pizza options on the menu at Cafe Spiaggia, though there's currently an extra one that features black truffles and will set you back $60. I was tempted to order it but then remembered I'd like to continue writing for this site and settled on more traditional offerings. I suspect the truffle-topped pie couldn't hold a candle to the excellent Bianco, a white pie that comes with rapini, mozzarella, goat cheese, chili flakes, garlic, and lemon.
White pizzas may never give me that soul-satisfying feeling that sauced pies can create, but the absence of tomatoes undoubtedly opens the door for chefs to play with a wider array of ingredients. Here, a double dose of mild cheesy creaminess (the goat cheese was largely tang-less) provided a great backdrop for the powerful and delicious blend of heat (chili flakes), acid (lemon juice), and nutty rapini that left any trace of bitterness in the saute pan before finding a home on the pizza.
A bit less successful was the Prosciutto pizza, which came with tomato sauce, mozzarella, and arugula, along with its namesake cured porcine, all on a whole wheat crust. Individually, the ingredients were all very good, especially the impossibly thin prosciutto di Parma. But together, there were a couple of problems. The tomato was surprisingly mild and really didn't come through at all, and the whole wheat crust was a bit overwhelming in its healthy graininess. Not a bad pie by any means, but not up to par in a restaurant as good as Cafe Spiaggia.
When Chef Mantuano was eliminated late in the game in Top Chef Masters, it was because the judges didn't like the crust on his grilled pizza at a tailgate cooking competition. Mantuano clearly disagreed with the judges' assessment, and based on my experiences with the delicate and delicious cracker crust at Terzo Piano and the crisp and chewy crust at Bar Toma, there's no question he knows what he's doing with the bread base of a pizza.
But a chef can only be in one kitchen at a time, and the crust at Cafe Spiaggia on my visit was not up to the standards of Mantuano's other restaurants. Both crusts were a bit too dense and the outer edge of the Bianco was downright crunchy. The flavor on both was fine (albeit strong in the case of the wheat crust) but neither stood out, which is especially surprising given how good the bread service at the restaurant is.
I did get a little more hopeful about the crust's potential on my way out of the restaurant. Three women two tables over from me, who were definitely not constrained by the budget of a pizza blog's freelancer, enjoyed a lunch that included sparking wine and one of the aforementioned $60 black truffle-topped pizzas. As I walked out of the restaurant and saw their special pie, it was clear the crust on that decadent beauty was quite a bit airier than mine. I'd love to report on what it tasted like but my dining companion that day, also known as my mother, put a stop to my plan to ask for a slice. If anyone's tried it, please give us a report.