One of the first food stories I ever wrote was about a pair of Argentine buddies who made terrific gelato and not so terrific pizza in a run down Lawrence Avenue storefront. The Penguin
is, sadly, long gone but Lawrence Avenue is still capable of cross-cultural surprises. Witness Albany Park's Ciao Bella Pizza, a bare-bones strip-mall joint flanked by shuttered businesses, run by a pair of Egyptian cousins that specialize in wood-fired Neapolitan pizza. Don't let that throw you. Though pizzaiolo Meme Allam was born and raised in Egypt, he emigrated to Italy after college and spent nearly a quarter century tossing pies in Milan. A few months back he teamed with his cousin Eddy and installed a clay wood-burning oven in a dingy storefront that, appropriately enough, used to be the home of a Korean pho restaurant.
You can sense the years of experience as Allam effortlessly spins ever-expanding discs of dough between his hands near the rear of the dining room before paddling them into the forno's flaming maw. These pies are the real thing: thin, fragile platforms of dough with the (typical) slightly mushy nucleus and a raised crust and upskirt stippled with toasty char. The crusts are a bit soft on the inside, a bit crispy on the outside, but lightly glazed with a bright, subtly sweet sauce, and sprinkled with a temperate amount of cheese, they more than support their payloads.
Better still, they are a tremendous value, most coming in anywhere from $1 to $9 cheaper than, say, Spacca Napoli
or Pizzeria da Nella
. In fact, at $6.95 the standard margherita, with regular mozzarella may be the city's best pizza deal (bufala mozz is $4 more). Even so, I challenge anyone to spurn the relatively pricier Tirolese, layered just out of the oven with thin strips of speck that begin to melt atop the light understory of bubbling Gorgonzola ($12.95). There are a dizzying variety of meat, seafood, and cheese pies that include some fairly unusual toppings infrequently seen outside of Italy (hot dogs! apples! tuna!). Eddy reports that they even experimented with a French fry pie, but they feared the neighborhood wasn't ready for that particular Italian expression.
There are a few calzones (nutella!) and antipasti plates on the menu, and the promise of pasta in the future, but the pizzas alone at this no-frills BYO should—if there's any justice—bring this barren strip mall to life.
Ciao Bella Pizza, 3737 W. Lawrence, 773-236-8799, ciaobellapizzapasta.com