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Chicago: Nella Grassano is Back and Better Than Ever at Pizzeria da Nella

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[Photographs: Nick Kindelsperger]

Pizzeria de Nella

1443 West Fullerton Avenue Chicago, IL 60614 (map); 773-281-6600; pizzeriadanella.com
Pizza style: Neapolitan-style
The skinny: Solid and satisfying pies from Chicago's queen of thin crust.
Price: $11.99 to $13.99

Nella Grassano is both Chicago's most famous pizzaiola and disappearing act. She is known for introducing our city to the pleasures of light and airy Neapolitan-style crusts, which she started dishing out at Spacca Napoli back in 2006. To understand why this was such a big deal, you need to realize that this was before Chicago's modern pizza era (see: Great Lake) when deep dish was still king. Sadly, she seems to leave places almost as fast as it takes for one of her pies to cook. Sure, Pizzeria da Nella in Lincoln Park has her name on the sign, which you might think would prevent a similar defection, but remember that didn't stop her from leaving the Scott Harris-backed Nella Pizzeria Napoletana.

But since she left that latter joint, much has changed in the pizza landscape, and as I walked into Pizzeria da Nella for the first time, I wondered whether having her in the kitchen really meant as much as everyone claimed. Nick Lessins (Great Lake) is more obsessive with his crusts, Chris Pandel (Balena) is more creative with toppings, and Jared Van Camp (NellcĂ´te) has taken the concept of handmade pizza to a whole new extreme by milling his own flour. What does Nella have to offer in this day and age?

Well, on my first visit, the answer was not a whole lot. Sure, it had only been open for a week at that point, but while the pies looked good, each seemed to be missing something distinctive to help them stand out from other Neapolitan joints around. And nothing about the bare-bones, Ikea-decorated interior gave me much confidence that things would improve.

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A few months later, Pizzeria da Nella is now serving pies with attitude and care, upping the game of Neapolitan pies in Chicago. To put it another way: Nella is back all right, and her pizzas are better than ever. The crusts, arriving beautifully marked from the 900-degree wood-fired oven and strong enough to hold up to the toppings, are crispier and chewier than I ever remember at Spacca Napoli or Nella Pizzeria Napoletana.

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Here's an underskirt shot for you, too.

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The difference is immediately apparent on the Margherita ($11.99), which features a nicely raised cornicione with an open and airy interior. The lightly applied sauce is acidic and ever so slightly sweet, while the just melted mozzarella has the requisite tang needed to even things out.

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When it comes to toppings, the ingredients aren't applied with the same kind of exacting care as at Balena or Great Lake, but they are flavorful, judiciously layered, and, most importantly, get the job done. That's especially true of the tonno e cipolla, where tuna, black olives, and caramelized onions combine to make a bite where the light, briny, and sweet toppings battle the smoky char of the crust.

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The diavola ($13.99), tests the limits of this balance, as a generous amount of spicy salami ensures each bite is robust and meaty. This is also the only pie I'd describe as oily, but thanks to my ravenous hunger, I devoured this one the fastest, stopping only to admire the red pepper flake induced glow after each slice.

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After plowing through a whole pizza, the last thing you'd think I'd want to do is eat more of that dough, but the nutella pizza spoke to me in a language only us addicts can hear. According to the waiter, pizza dough is stretched to shape and tossed in the oven without any toppings. After it puffs up for a few seconds, it is removed, and the top part is cut off. Then nutella is spread on the bottom piece, before the top half is placed back on. Finished off in the oven, and then sprinkled with powdered sugar, the result is creamy and sweet nutella between two crispy light layers. Fantastic stuff.

All this said, the pizzas have the same faults that Nella's pies always do, preventing them from reaching the sort of insane heights of similar looking pizza, like Motorino in New York. The ends could be higher, and the dough could use more salt. But nit-picking seems wrong as each shows an improvement over her last stint. Here's hoping she can stick around long enough to improve even more. Regardless, Pizzeria da Nella seems poised to take over the top spot for best Neapolitan-style pizza in Chicago.

About the author: Nick Kindelsperger is the editor of Serious Eats: Chicago. He loves tacos and spicy food. You can follow him as @nickdk on Twitter.

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