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Nick Nitti is a guy who owned a pizza parlor, and gave it up to follow his dream of opening . . . a different pizza parlor.
Five years ago, he owned a New York-style slice place near the Board of Trade called Pizza Broker. Then he went to Naples. "I had my first taste of true Neapolitan pizza, and I absolutely fell in love with it," he says. "I was there for three weeks, and, honestly, I ate pizza for lunch and dinner every single day. I just couldn't get enough of it."
The result is Forno Rosso Pizzeria Napoletana, the wood-fired pizza restaurant Nitti opened in early July along a northwest-side Italian strip probably best known for the Italian deli Riviera. He's currently in the process of becoming only the third Neapolitan pizza restaurant in the Chicago area to be certified authentic by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, after Spacca Napoli and (here's a trivia answer sure to stump the foodies in your life) Parkers' Restaurant & Bar in Downers Grove.
Newly obsessed after his Naples trip, he went around the country sampling authentic Neapolitan pizzerias, and then studied with a pizzaiolo in Naples for three weeks, followed by an apprenticeship in Nevada with that pizzaiolo's brother, who works for a west-coast chain.
But it's not enough to be trained; you have to have an authentic Neapolitan oven. His is a 6,000-pound one made by a family business, Stefano Ferrara, in Naples, and decorated with red tile (hence the restaurant's name, Forno Rosso, "red oven"). The floor of the oven is made with a proprietary mortar from the vicinity of Mount Vesuvius. When in use the oven reaches 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit at the top of its dome.
Nitti follows the method of traditional Neapolitan pizza making, using 00 flour and letting his dough ferment at room temperature for more than 24 hours. "What I learned in Naples is that when you refrigerate dough, it brings out the sugars more, and you're getting a different kind of dough," he says. "Leaving it out overnight is natural, and how it was done a thousand years ago."
Some ingredients, such as the burrata on the antipasti menu and the prosciutto, come from Italy, while he buys other items locally—his sausage is made to his specs by Joseph's Finest Meats on Addison, he buys things like eggs and mushrooms from farmers at the Oak Park Farmer's Market, and his 87-year-old grandmother comes to the restaurant a couple of times a week to make her special caponata, the recipe for which she refuses to write down—"She wants us to memorize it, by mimicking how she makes it," says Nitti. He also found some of his staff locally. One of the pizzaiolos helped open Spacca Napoli; that pizzaiolo's brother works alongside him, learning the craft, and his sister, who works for Nitti as a waitress, is married to Spacca's current pizzaiolo.
Apart from the justly beloved Riviera, the Italian strip on Harlem Avenue always looks more promising and authentic than it usually turns out to be, and most of the city's Neapolitan-style pizzerias are closer to the lakefront and downtown. So I asked Nitti why he opened on the northwest edge of the city. "I grew up in this neighborhood, and it's a very ethnic neighborhood, very eastern European but also very diverse," he explains. "There's Neapolitan pizza in Ravenswood, and in Bucktown, and some places that fool around with wood-burning ovens downtown, but nothing between there and the western suburbs. So I figured this would be a good place to put myself in between."
"It's educating American people, because Chicagoans are used to a thicker crust, crispier. I love pizza, it's what I've done my whole life," he says. "Back and forth to New York, imitating their style [at Pizza Broker], that worked well for me, but then when I went to Naples and I tried this—I said, this is what I want."
Forno Rosso Pizzeria Napoletana, 3719 N. Harlem, 773-491-8200, rossochicago.com