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All Fired Up

The competition to create the best rustic, wood-fired pizzas gets hot

Chicagoans have this thing about pizza. Call it a hang-up, call it an obsession, but many Chicagoans wouldn't dare think of having a slice of that fold-over, semi-thin-crust stuff New Yorkers drool over. That would be so wrong, so Benedict Arnold of us. By our very nature, many of us either go all out with the deep dish or all under with the crispy, super-thin crust. There hardly seems to be an in between—until this year.
    You've probably noticed the explosion in the last year of restaurants and pizzerias around town serving more authentic, Italian- style pizza, with nods to Naples and Northern Italy. Where Neapolitan pizza generally has a very thin crust with puffier edges, Roman pizza has semi-breadier crust with a crisp bite and chewier finish. That's according to John Caputo, executive chef of Bin 36 and now of A Mano (335 N. Dearborn, 312-629-3500), his new, authentic Italian restaurant serving homemade pastas, meat and seafood dishes—and of course wood-fired pizzas.
    "Our pizza is a little more like Roman-style than Neapolitan," Caputo says. "Neapolitan pizza can be a little less crispy, almost soggy in the middle. In Rome, the crust is slightly crispier with a good chew. When I eat it, my jaw almost hurts."
    David DeGregorio, executive chef at Pizzeria Via Stato (620 N. State, 312-642-8450), a small "pizzeria" that opened inside Osteria Via Stato in the fall, with separate food and wine menus, also prefers the Roman-style pie. But even DeGregorio has a twist on Roman-style. His is slightly crispier than Caputo's and noticeably thinner, although both have that rustic, wood-fired taste. Getting to that finished state is all about the dough-making process. After many travels to Italy, specifically the Puglia region in the southeast, Caputo says he spent hours, days, weeks perfecting his dough.
    "Dough has two separate rises, which is important," Caputo says. "We found that it takes about 24 hours to make the best dough." During that time frame, water combines with the yeast in the first rise, and then the dough rises again while resting. Water temperature is just as important, Caputo says. "The temperature of water differs depending on the time of year. In the summer, we'll use ice cubes to temper the water, and in the winter, we need to make sure the water reaches between 68 and 72 degrees."
    Caputo says he once tried substituting filtered still water with carbonated water from his in-house water filtering system after hearing that Pellegrino water makes the best pizza. That didn't go over so well.  "The dough absolutely didn't rise. It was too chewy and dense." Caputo figured out that the carbon dioxide in his carbonated water was the root of the problem.
    Despite subtle differences in their styles, Caputo and DeGregorio agree on the same thing. What sets A Mano and Pizzeria Via Stato's pizzas apart from the reign of the Chicago-style deep dish you might find at the beloved Lou's or Uno's is that it's just plain lighter.  The two almost use the same sentence to say this. "When you have thinner pizza, you don't feel like you have to lie down and take a nap afterward," DeGregorio says. In Caputo's words, "You don't have to go home and sleep afterward."
    This idea seems obvious, but the Roman-style pizza, or all European pizzas for that matter, truly have that certain satisfying element where less is more. DeGregorio says he focuses on using the highest quality, seasonal ingredients to satisfy with overstuffing, and Caputo does the same. Fennel, wild mushrooms, gorgonzola cheese and seasonal, heirloom tomatoes top the homemade pizzas at Pizzeria Via Stato. Truffle oil drizzles on white pies.  Thinly sliced prosciutto, shell-on clams and homemade meatballs top those at A Mano.
    Add to the mix La Madia (59 W. Grand, 312-329-0400), another new, 4,200-square-foot, hotspot for authentic Italian-style pizza, which opened this fall in River North.  The brains behind the concept is Jonathan Fox, who most recently clocked time as the chief operating officer for Maggiano's Little Italy and now owns his own restaurant operating and consulting business, 360 Dining Intelligence. Fox, like Caputo and DeGregio, says he gained inspiration from Naples and Rome during the couple years he spent traveling and honing his ideas. "Our pizza is Neapolitan style, but with a Roman touch, so it's a bit crispier," Fox says. Instead of rolling out the dough to create a cracker-like crust for Roman-style pizza, La Madia's pizza is stretched by hand to create what Fox says is the "ideal balance between chew and crispiness."
    "I like pizza with texture, silkiness and chew, but personally my preference is for it to be slightly crispy on the finish." Essentially, La Madia's pizza is slightly crispier than Neapolitan, but chewier than Roman-style.
    Confusing?  Here's one thing these pizzas share. A key element aside from the cheese, sauce and toppings that makes an Italian-style pizza truly authentic is the wood oven.  At A Mano, Caputo knew he wanted to build the oven into the wall, making it a centerpiece of the exposed kitchen. Impressed by the ovens he saw while working in San Francisco, Caputo found a local builder to construct the oven of his dreams. That it is—an impressive brick-encompassed, literal hole in the wall. The oven  can fit up to 10 pies at once. A mixture of oak and other woods add that certain flavor component to rustic, Italian pizzas that traditional ovens just can't.
    At La Madia, the wood oven also serves as the central part of the kitchen—and the entertainment for some. Counter seats line the exposed, linear kitchen. "They're the hottest seats in the house, literally." Blasting at 770 degrees to 890 degrees, that certainly could be true. But this heat is essential in order to get the bottom of the pie hot enough so it will rise up and bring in some of that smokiness given off by the burning wood, a combination of oak and walnut. "There's an emotional element that an oven brings," Fox says. "It almost brings you back in time. People are just infatuated with it."
    Like La Madia's other two pizza cohorts mentioned, the menu, focused almost solely on pizza here, breaks down into red and bianca, or white, sauceless pizzas. While the traditional pepperoni pizza with truffle oil and torn basil is the signature of the house, diners can also choose from more untraditional toppings "with a twist" like the homemade sausage bianca pizza (using sustainable, Neiman ranch pork) with sweet vidalia onions and thinly sliced, yellow and red peppers sprinkled with chili flakes, a take on the traditional Italian, sausage and peppers dish. Another interesting twist is the roasted grape and taleggio cheese pizza that has its own wine pairing (La Madia has 50 wines by the glass and 250 by the bottle from which to choose).
    So, could it be that the pizza world in Chicago is evolving? As Fox puts it, in the two years he took to develop La Madia, "as we got further along, it seemed as if there was always another pizzeria opening." While this could naturally bring beads of sweat to any restaurateur's forehead, it didn't, at least too badly, with Fox. "Pizza is one of the most popular foods in the country," he says. "We're not the first to open, and we're certainly not the last."

1927 W. North, 773-772-4422
Owner Bill Jacob has a charming smile and great persona to boot, but he also knows pizza. Opened about five years ago and still kicking (and we mean kicking given the sometimes hour wait Saturday nights), this Wicker Park now-mainstay serves up gi-normous self- described New Haven pies on large rectangular pans. Slices come in odd shapes as a result, but it tastes the same going down—a thin, chew crust with crisp edges gets loaded with what tastes like whole- milk mozzarella cheese, with a sauce underneath emitting hints of garlic and roasted tomato goodness. Choose your base—white, plain or red, then your toppings from the traditional—pepperoni, black olives, sausage—to the not so traditional—chunky chicken, creamy goat cheese, even clams. Wash it all down with the house-brewed craft beers on tap.

Spacca Napoli
1769 W. Sunnyside, 773-878-2420
Foodies rave about this pizza and regulars declare it some of the best in the city (at least according to the host of food blogs covering Chicago). They're not far off. A year ago this authentic Italian-style 'za with Naples roots took root in Ravenswood. Owner Jon Goldsmith took many travels to the southern city to perfect his pies at home, and even named his eatery after "Spaccanapoli," an old quarter in the heart of Naples considered to be the birthplace of pizza. Menu choices certainly don't delve into the unusual, with the margherita, funghi (mushroom) and pizza bianca (white pizza with prosciutto), but the difference is that each pizza's made with imported mozzarella cheese—Fior Di Latte, to be exact—as well as other imported or homemade, wholesome goodies for a truly, authentic taste.

2056 W. Division, 773-235-5511
Being the first certified organic, full-service restaurant in Chicago, this Bucktown pizzeria certainly had some hype surrounding it when it first opened. That hasn't gone away, with crowds still packing the place to see what the fuss is all about. The fuss, some say, isn't too different from any other pizza restaurant loading their pies with good, wholesome ingredients. But its individual size, rectangular "flatbreads" that come to the table on cute wood boards bring about a certain uniqueness and appeal. Toppings too—fun varieties include the "mexicali blues" with wood-oven grilled shrimp, chihuahua cheese, pico de gallo, heirloom tomatoes (when possible) and cilantro and the "flammkuchen" with caramelized onion, bechemal sauce, caraway seeds and bacon.

1321 W. Grand, 312-226-2625
Co-owners Bill Carroll and J. Spillane take pride in their East Coast heritage when talking about their idea of opening this New York- style pizzeria in West Town, where semi-thin pies come out of the coal-fired oven bubbling hot, a little charred along the edges and certainly toothsome to the bite. Theirs, they say, is anything but the Chicago-style deep dish cheesiness that we in the city love so much, but that's not a bad thing. Huge pies sliced even huger (for folding, of course) come topped with a sweeter sauce and your choice of various toppings, including hot, fennel-y salami, hearty Italian sausage (uh, so Chicago) and melted Buffalo mozzarella margharita-style.

626 N. State, 312-698-5000
This River North, slightly sceney hotspot's likely to feel the heat of competition from Pizzeria Via Stato across the street, but it's probably safe to say this popular casual Italian resto's not going anywhere. A look around the place on a Saturday night, and even weeknights for that matter, shows tables upon tables with thin-crust pizzas elevated on traditional pan holders. The crust is truly is truly thin, consistent in shape through the middle to the edges with a little more crispiness than you might expect. After all, they're called "Neopolitan pizza" on the menu. Choose from an array of about 20 pies, split half and half with meatless options like the cheesy "Quattro Formaggi" to the meaty ones like the "Soprano" with homemade veal meatballs.

Published: December 02, 2007
Issue: December Philanthropy 07