Chicago's Spacca Napoli: Good But Not Great
I wanted to love Spacca Napoli. I really did. Having taken massive amounts of grief for allegedly dissing deep dish Chicago pizza by characterizing it as "at best, a good casserole" in my book Pizza: Slice of Heaven, I was hoping to swoon over Jon Goldsmith's VPN-certified pizzeria in the Windy City and put Spacca Napoli in my pizza pantheon. The friend I met there, Andrew Huff, founder of Gaper's Block, compared Spacca Napoli to Pizzeria Bianco. High praise, indeed, coming from a fellow as smart as Andrew.
I met Andrew there at 2:30 p.m. The day before, serious eater Michael Nagrant had taken me on a phenomenal tour of Chicago (more about that in a future post) that featured the cemita and the huarache of my dreams and the best Sicilian sweets I have ever tasted, so I thought I could continue my Chicago eats hot streak at Spacca Napoli.
I ordered one pie with bufala mozzarella (above) and another with fior di latte and sausage. I wandered around the place waiting for my pizzas and Andrew.
The oven (above) was a gorgeous copper-framed, wood-burning beauty. Signs designating Spacca Napoli as a VPN-approved pizzeria were in plain sight. But there was one disquieting sign: Jon Goldsmith was there but not making pizza. At least he wasn't making my pizzas.
The pizzas arrived at my table just as Andrew showed up. They looked like typical VPN pizza: inch-high crust, dots of high-quality mozzarella, simple canned Italian tomatoes, fresh basil leaves, and a little extra-virgin olive oil. I wished the cornicione was higher, but maybe I'm nit-picking here.
I took a bite of the sausage pizza. The sausage was good, and the cheese was creamy, but the crust had no exterior crispness. In fact, it was downright limp. It was the pizza equivalent of what happens when all the air is let out of a bike tire. What had done this to my pizza? I could say it was the hot and ultra-humid weather, but the dining room was plenty cool. Even the open kitchen appeared to be air-conditioned.
Now, don't get me wrong. They were both fine pizzas, and I would be happy eating at Spacca Napoli every day. The bufala mozzarella was wonderfully tangy and had the slight sourness I love in the bufala mozzarella I eat in this country. I would even be ready to proclaim Spacca Napoli's greatness and shout it out to the world if I hadn't experienced true pizza greatness at Pizzeria Bianco and Una Pizza Napoletana. That kind of pizza greatness requires that the crust have a crisp exterior and give way to tender insides.
Spacca Napoli is pizza goodness, not pizza greatness. Sorry, Chicago. As the Cookie Monster would say, it's good, but it's not delicious. Another artisanal pizzeria, Great Lakes, opened a few weeks ago in Chicago. I tried to eat there with Mike Nagrant after our little Mexican food sojourn, but it was closed. I'll try to get there my next visit, which should be soon. After all, I love everything about Chicago except the pizza.