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The Return Of Nella Grassano

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Apr 26, 2012 7:00PM

Chuck Sudo/Chicagoist

It’s April 21 and the process starts with a ball of dough, one of many proofing for hours in an airtight box. The Chef removes it and casually tosses it into a small hill of flour, dusts the counter with a quick pinch, and begins to roll the dough out by hand; there’s no need here for a roller.

Within seconds The Chef has formed a perfect 12-inch disc from the dough and applies a large serving spoon of sweet tomato sauce, spreading it out in a circular motion, then some fresh basil soaked in water, then large chunks of fresh mozzarella are added and, finally, liberal pours of extra virgin olive oil.

Chuck Sudo/Chicagoist
The Chef slides a pizza spatula underneath the disc and places it in a wood-burning oven glowing red at a hot 900 degrees. The disc is moved around in the oven to ensure uniform cooking and prevent sticking to the oven’s base. The look on the chef’s face indicates something is wrong. After a minute, The Chef removes the pizza from the oven.

It looks flat. The crust has formed level with the rest of the pizza, and not as a barricade for the ingredients it contains. The dough didn’t rise in the oven the way The Chef expected.

“Francesco!” Nella Grassano calls out to her husband. Franco Grassano walks to the counter that surrounds the brick oven of Pizzeria da Nella Cucina Napoletana and studies the pizza It doesn’t pass Nella Grassano’s standards, handed down to her through two generations of Italian pizza chefs. Husband and wife talk in English and Italian. Then Franco asks me if I know where he can buy some beer yeast -cake yeast preferred—so his wife can make the dough the way she wants. It’s a week before the Grassanos are to open Pizzeria da Nella, and they’re working out the kinks.

It’s been two years since Nella Grassano last crafted her pizzas in a public setting. A third generation pizzaiola from Naples, she’s regarded as one of the best in Chicago and may be solely responsible for popularizing Neapolitan pizza in the city, first at Spacca Napoli and later at Nella Pizzeria Napoletana. Her exit from each restaurant was followed by speculation as to why she left and may have earned her and Franco Grassano reputations as being difficult to work with. Franco Grassano would only tell the Reader’s Mike Sula, when they had their falling out with Nella Pizzeria partner Scott Harris, “a lot of things. A lot of bad things. Not on my wife’s part” regarding the split.

Both Grassanos told me the same thing, while adding that Harris may have wanted to add some more Americanized Italian fare to the more pure strain Nella practiced. Regardless, Franco said Nella went into a funk after.

“It took her a long time to get over what happened with (Harris),” he said. “Eventually, I kept on her and said, ‘let’s do this on our own.’

“If it fails this time,” he added, “we have no one to blame but ourselves. But we don’t expect it to fail.”

In person, the Grassanos make a formidable team whose personalities complement each other. Nella is more reserved and lets her cooking do the talking; Franco is more affable, brought on by years of working in the industry. They’ve been a team almost from the moment they met in 1995, when they met at Glenview’s Gusto Italiano while Nella was on a visit from Naples. “I was supposed to stay one month,” Nella said. “I wound up staying three.” She returned stateside and married Franco two years later.

Chuck Sudo/Chicagoist
Pizzeria da Nella takes up part of the former Tsuki sushi space in Lincoln Park. The wood-burning oven, like at Nella Pizzeria, was built to Nella’s specifications. It’s a massively tiled marvel built from Italian volcanic ash and Vesuvio stone. The oven is fired by white oak—“it doesn’t add any flavor to the pizzas,” she said—and can reach temperatures of over 1,000 degrees. At 900 degrees it only takes about a minute for a pizza to bake in the oven.

The Grassanos are making Pizzeria de Nella a family affair. Nella Grassano’s brother will helm the kitchen and bring the family cookbook with them, including house made gnocchi and pasta dishes. Franco Grassano has put together a wine list featuring the odd Argentinean and Napa Valley red among an overwhelmingly Italian list. They’ll also be serving organic wines from Ischia.

For the non-oenophile, Franco Grassano has put together a cocktail list that will focus on Italian bitters similar to, but not as expansive as, the cocktail program at Balena. Beer will be represented with an emphasis on Italian crafts. “We’ve gone beyond Peroni and Moretti here, although both of those are on the menu,” he said.

But the main draw will be Nella Grassano’s pizzas. Bar seating around the oven will give guests an up-close and personal view of her rolling out dough and topping pie after pie. And that’s what the Grassanos hope will be their trump card.

“This isn’t Neapolitan-style pizza,” Franco Grasssano said. “This is authentic Neapolitan pizza.”

Pizzeria da Nella Cucina Napoletana opens tomorrow and is located at 1443 W. Fullerton Ave. Phone: 773-281-6600.