HYDE PARK — Nella Pizza and Pasta will open on Sept. 15 bringing real Neapolitan-style Italian pizza to Hyde Park — emphasis on "Italian."
Owners Frank and Nella Grassano have gone to great lengths to make sure the pizza tastes like it would in Italy, which they claim is very different from what Chicagoans think of as pizza.
“American sauce is so heavy, I can’t believe it,” said Nella, who grew up in Naples, on Tuesday. “Every time I eat it, I get heartburn.”
She said pizza should feel like a healthy meal, and an Italian-style pizza should have less than half the calories of an American-style pie if done right. The crust should be crunchy and a little doughy, and the cheese should taste cheesy but not oily at all, she said.
“For the kids here, it’s good food. It’s not junk food, it’s healthy food,” Nella said.
To get it right at the new location at 1125 E. 55th St., on the first floor of the University of Chicago’s new residence hall, there’s been a lot of work that’s had to happen, work that’s taken generations to get right.
The Grassanos flew in from Italy a fifth-generation oven builder who could build an oven to the exact standards Nella wanted. Her standards were pretty straightforward: Make it exactly like her father’s oven in Italy. It was to be just like the oven where Nella learned to start cooking pizza at 6 years old as the latest in her own line of multigenerational pizza makers that stretches back to her great-grandfather.
“I can never say my pizza is 100 percent like Italy, the air and the water is different,” Nella said.
But she must be getting close. The restaurant only uses tomatoes grown in Italy, a variety Frank said seems to melt away into a sauce in the two minutes the pizza is in the oven.
The couple opened the original location in Lincoln Park five years ago and have been there almost every day since. And that might be the problem with being a certified pizza master, like Nella, who has the certificate from the Italian government showing she gained mastery after making pizza for 10 years at the age of 16.
“Every little thing you have to know to get the pizza right,” Nella said. “When I do it, I use my heart because every one of my pizzas has to be perfect.”
It’s hard to teach someone how to cook like they have 30 years of experience making dough and firing up the oven without it taking 30 years. So Nella is still at the restaurant every day preparing up to 500 rounds of dough that must then proof for two days so it has the right puff when it's put in a 900-degree oven.
The pasta, Nella admits, is easier to make, but also must hit her high standards. She said she won’t eat in Italian restaurants in Chicago because they so rarely get it right. She said she used to embarrass Frank when they were first dating because he would take her out for Italian food and she would refuse to touch it.
The owners are putting the finishing touches on a menu that is stripped down by about half compared to the Lincoln Park menu to make room for an expanded lunch menu and a forthcoming brunch menu.
The couple said their focus will be on the Hyde Park location, and they’re eager to see how the neighborhood likes it.