It's All in the Oven | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

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It's All in the Oven

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Spacca Napoli

1769 W. Sunnyside

773-878-2420

Jonathan Goldsmith slept just three hours the night before last. His new Neapolitan pizzeria, Spacca Napoli, was so busy on its first Friday that he had to get up at four the next morning to make dough. Now it's Sunday at noon, and he needs to make more. But Goldsmith, dressed in a baseball cap that says "Napoli" and a T-shirt bearing the brand name Caputo (makers of a finely milled pizza flour), is too enthusiastic about his massive wood-burning brick oven to mind. He aims an infrared gun at the oven's terra-cotta floor: the temperature is at 500 degrees even after a night and a morning without fuel. Goldsmith flew a trio of Neapolitan oven builders over to build it on-site; some of the sand that insulates it is from Mount Vesuvius. The result, he likes to say, is "probably the best oven in America."

True Neapolitan pizza is elemental: just flour, water, yeast, salt, and a few spare toppings baked in an oven so hot it could almost forge steel, up to 1,200 degrees. The crust should be pliable, not crackerlike, with blackened blisters; the top should be moist with fresh mozzarella, the rim puffy. Ideally it's served immediately, before the dough can get soggy--take-out orders clearly cause Goldsmith pain. He hopes to have his restaurant certified by the Verace Pizza Napoletana Association, an organization that pronounces pizzerias officially Neapolitan. There are just 11 certified in the U.S.

Trained as a clinical social worker, Goldsmith got into real estate in Chicago in the early 90s and made money while the market was hot. He'd lived in Italy for several years in the late 80s with his wife, artist Ginny Sykes, and they've returned regularly since. On a plane in 2003 he fell into conversation with the owner of a New York pizzeria, who saw a newspaper photo of Goldsmith cooking at the Inspiration Cafe, a nonprofit that provides meals for the homeless, and suggested that he open a restaurant. Intrigued, Goldsmith started hanging out at pizzerias in Naples, eventually spending six months out of the next year and a half in the city.

"It was just kismet," he says. Some restaurateurs were bewildered by him--an American who just wanted to learn about pizza--but the owners of Di Matteo, where Bill Clinton once ate, adopted him. Soon Goldsmith was making plans to convert the storefront he'd bought on the quiet corner of Sunnyside and Ravenswood--originally intended as a gallery for his wife--into something like you'd find in Spaccanapoli, the historic center of Naples. "It was a labor of love for two and a half years," he says.

The restaurant's front door opens onto a gilt-framed six-foot-long print of the Naples harbor. A photo of Toto, the beloved Neapolitan comic actor, hangs over the open kitchen. In the corner, shimmering with heat, is the oven. Goldsmith knows the origin of every inch of it: he packed a shipping container in Naples with three types of sand, three types of brick, and a slab of volcanic stone--13,000 pounds total. It took the three third- and fourth-generation Neapolitan oven builders ten days to build it. The oven's small interior--it's approximately three feet wide and a foot-and-a-half tall--is blanketed by walls of thick sand. "This'll stay warm for five days," Goldsmith says.

To handle the pizza preparation Goldsmith hired Nella Grassano, who's originally from Formia, a town between Rome and Naples, where she worked in her family's restaurant. At Spacca Napoli she's also producing splendid versions of southern Italian antipasti like zucchine alla scapece. As each pizza order comes in she stretches out the dough in seconds, draping it over her left hand and spanking it into a circle with her right. She slips a pizza peel through the narrow oven door and leaves the pizza a few feet from a pile of smoldering oak logs. After just a minute she flips up the corner with the peel--the crust is already firm and blackening. "Good," she says. "You see, it's good already." She levitates it above the stone to finish the toppings--for five seconds, no more--then slides it onto a pizza plate imported from Naples. Next to the plate the waiter will lay a special pizza knife, serrated and angled at the tip--also Neapolitan, of course.

Come spring Spacca Napoli's pizza will be served at sidewalk tables, next to which Goldsmith plans to build--what else?--a boccie court.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson.

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