I was lost, confused, and more than a little perturbed. The sign above my head said Panino's Pizzeria, so why was I in a small room with standard thin crust slices hanging out under heat lamps? This is the place that Steve Dolinksy recently declared the best Neapolitan pizzeria in all of Chicago—better than Spacca Napoli and even Pizzeria da Nella? I couldn't even see the item on the massive, 100-plus item menu. Now, there were a handful of other pizza styles—including Chicago-style stuffed crust, thin crust, and something called "in Da pan"—but nothing even mentioning Neapolitan. Was this a cruel joke?
Turns out I was in the wrong place. Though the name is the same, I was in Panino's take-out storefront, which is different from the sit-down restaurant located around the corner on Waveland (which, I should point out, has "Pizzeria Artigianale Napoletana" in massive letters, with "Panino's" sidelined in small letters at the top right). I'm an idiot. Moving on.
But even looking at this (much) shorter menu did nothing to calm my apprehensions. Here's a question for you: have you ever eaten exceptional Neapolitan pizza from a restaurant with a "full slab of ribs" listed on the menu? Anything is possible, and I certainly have nothing against ribs, but it's just been my general observation that the best Neapolitan pizza comes from places with owners who are clearly obsessed. Strict VPN observance means less to me than seeing someone with a crazed look in his or her eye handling the dough.
As you can tell, my high pizza expectations were tromping all over this place before I ever took a bite, and I didn't like it. Have you ever ruined a pizza experience before taking a bite? With comparisons to other Neapolitan pizzerias running through my head, I was trying to make Panino's something it was not. And when my pies arrived looking more blonde than blistered, my mind got angry and turned against this pizza in a completely inexcusable way: "Not only is this not the best," I thought, "This is some of the worst pizza I've ever eaten ever!" (I think there was a maniacal laugh in there, too.)
Of course, that's not the truth. Because this is good pizza, even if I have a hard time calling it exceptional. Panino's take on the Margherita, The Regina ($13), features a bright and acidic sauce, along with salty and creamy fresh mozzarella.
That brings us to the crust. Thought it had few of the black marks I expected, it has real structure and chew. Perhaps it has too much heft. It's sturdier than most Neapolitan pizzerias I've tried, maintaining crispness even in the middle.
I can see how a few more seconds in the oven would lend a little more char, but that seems like it would also overcook the dough in the process.
The other pie didn't hold up as well. The Barese ($15), one of the pizzeria's white pies, should have balanced the fat and spice of fresh Italian sausage, the bitterness of broccoli rabe, and the creaminess of fresh mozzarella. But too much of the latter ingredient, along with indistinctive sausage, led to an average bite. Not bad by any means, but missing the careful eye that a place like Pizzeria da Nella shows.
Interestingly, once I gave up any thoughts of comparing this to other pizzerias around town, I finally started to enjoy it. Once I got past some of the issues, I realized that Panino's is actually a pretty stellar neighborhood pizza joint, one that I'd love to have within walking distance of my place. My advice? Keep expectations in check, enjoy the affordable wine, and leave pleasantly surprised.