Nella Pizzeria Napoletana (CLOSED)

Restaurants, Pizza Lincoln Park

One night, I visited Nella with a salad fanatic.

“Can we order the arugula and parmigiano?” he asked.

“And the insalata di mare?”

“And the marinated anchovies?”

We could, and we did. On another evening, the grigliata di verdure —roasted peppers, grilled zucchini, soft charred eggplant. And another order of the insalata di mare (though the seafood was less rubbery this time around).

What else could I do? Under normal circumstances I would have vetoed salad requests in favor of dishes more complicated. But at Nella I was cornered. It’s adamantly Italian in this place, and complicated isn’t in the restaurant’s vocabulary. The antipasti relies solely on the quality of the ingredients, which are manipulated minimally: White anchovies get a splash of balsamic and a bit of garlic, giving them the flavor of ocean and vinegar. The marinated salmon exhibited layers of sweetness, tartness and, at the end, an unfortunate bit of fishiness. And all of the vegetables in the grigliata had an earthy sweetness coaxed out of them. It was simplicity perfected, and it was transformative. Or, it would have been, had the two big flat-screens blaring ESPN not gotten in the way.

Yes, there are TVs here. And the room is brighter than a hospital waiting room, which is another reason it’s hard to get into a reverie. I think all our attention is supposed to go to the pizza oven, a fiery monstrosity built with Italian materials by Italian muscle. But I hardly noticed the thing. And to be honest, the Neapolitan pies that come out of that oven weren’t very attention-grabbing, either. Nella Grassano—the pizzaiola, formerly of Spacca Napoli—creates a crust that bakes up golden and with a lot of chew. But when topped with tomatoes, mozzarella, tuna and black olives (the particularly rich combination on the tonno e cipolla pie), that crust gets so wet it sops, just barely clinging together under hot tomato juices. It’s a problem that’s solved with fewer ingredients, like those that shine in the Sorrentina—mozzarella, tomatoes, basil and olive oil. But here the crust trades sogginess for excessive chewiness. At one point I took a break from eating, just to soothe my jaw.

Still, I’ll build a little jaw muscle to tackle this pizza again. For the purity of the pizza, the clean expression of the ingredients, it’s worth it. And the fact that it’s flanked on both sides by serious, simple food (the vanilla-scented panna cotta is a textbook example of how delicious this dessert can be) doesn’t hurt. But the stuffed pizzas I’ll avoid. The Vesuvio—a double-crusted pie that arrives with a blistered, volcano-like crust—smells amazing and has movie-star looks. But it’s nothing special, and people who order it will likely scold themselves for having known better. Simplicity isn’t just what this place excels at; it’s pretty much all it can handle.

By: David Tamarkin


Venue name: Nella Pizzeria Napoletana (CLOSED)
Address: 2423 N Clark St

Cross street: between Fullerton Ave and Arlington Pl
Opening hours: Lunch (Sat, Sun), dinner
Transport: El stop: Brown, Purple (rush hrs), Red to Fullerton. Bus: 22, 36, 151, 156.
Price: Average pizza: $13
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