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Hungry Magazine - All Things Tasty
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12.07.08

New Kid on the Neapolitan Block

Restaurant Reviews


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antica

Whoever said all roads lead to Rome must have been suffering from some Caesarian nostalgia. When it comes to ancient Italy, Naples is the crown jewel. After all, this is where pizza is said to have been born. Like Jesus in Bethlehem, this storied city in the country’s southern boot lays proud claim to one of humanity’s finest gifts: thin, slightly chewy, delicately dressed, blast-heated, Neapolitan style pies. Chicago may be celebrated as the deep dish breadbasket, but the current rash of new Neapolitan influenced joints attests that there’s a much different demand afoot locally. The relatively new Antica Pizzeria in Andersonville claimed to satisfy this demand.

Being from the east coast, I was afforded the luxury of thin crust pizzas up the wazoo. There was none of this deep dish nonsense to steal the show from my neighborhood faves: the New York style take out counter, where a slice is served with a side of macho sass; the dimly lit brick-oven cavern, offering thin pies as crunchy as a Ritz cracker; and those obligatory “house of pizza” joints seemingly every town was required to operate.

There was never anything quite like trekking over to the village pizza and sandwich shop after an autumn soccer game and scarfing down slice after cheesy slice with the gang. It’s hard to recall a weekend at home growing up where we didn’t ride the takeout train to Pizza-town. And so I was reared on a bevy of thin crust. To me, pizza sported a greasy sheen; it was sliced into foldable triangle wedges and meant for handheld consumption. .

Having moved to Chicago, my thin-crust benchmark these days is what I have come to refer to as the “Napoli Twins”: Spacca Napoli and Sapore di Napoli. Now Antica, open since October by two dudes named Mario and Gino (are there any other pizza shop names?) has its work cut out for itself if it wants to wedge itself into the fray.

First impressions of the dark interior, scattered with wooden tables and framed pictures of Naples street life, came off as a serious stab at authenticity, slightly one-upping the bright modern feel of Spacca and the Chuckie Cheese vibe happening at Sapore. Our eager waiter, a young gent named Dimeter, nearly trampled us in his overzealous rush to greet us at the door. As the night went on, we essentially learned this guy’s life story. The fact that he had just moved to the states in June and had been on staff at Antica for three days made it slightly more understandable why he was so desperate for chit chat. He was less a waiter and more of a stray puppy I wanted to adopt. Unfortunately, puppies don’t make for the best wait service. Over the course of dinner, he poured tap water into my sparkling San Pellegrino, neglected to omit mushrooms from our tortellini dish as requested, failed to specify what the meat filling inside said tortellini actually was, and was completely clueless as to what a panna cotta is.

Service gaffes aside, the restaurant’s Neapolitan calling card almost made up for its reel of missteps. The Margherita pizze was love at first sight with an oily sheen of grease that appeared to wink at me. The first bite hit all the chewy, charred notes a Neapolitan should: the distinctive ashy flavor of super-heated brick dusted along the crust, the drizzle of smoky tomato sauce, the bubbling layer of mozzarella, and the delicate placement of a few basil leaves, capping each slice like a fleur-de-lis. My partner’s Salume pizze echoed this simplicity in ingredients, subbing whisper-thin rounds of Italian pepperoni for basil. Even the slight aroma of the most basic additions, be it a basil leaf or some glorified deli meat, is enough to complement each bite.

Anyone who knows Neapolitan-style knows that one pie is not enough to sate an appetite. Recall I mentioned that the pizzas were almost good enough to make up for the failures? The pizza was great, but everything thereafter was D.O.A. My partner and I split the aforementioned tortellini dish, a pasta lesson in “how to disappoint the customer.” We asked for no mushrooms with our beef-filled pasta. But, there they were, mocking us from their cream-sauce cradle.

Then there was the salad. Call me naïve, but isn’t it expected, when ordering a pear and gorgonzola salad, to actually get some pear and gorgonzola? Aside from the remnants of maybe one fourth of a pear and a hidden sprinkling of gorgonzola, there was nothing to set the dish apart from a clamshell of mixed greens from Jewel. And the candied walnuts mentioned on the menu? More like tasteless crumbs dotting the bottom of the plate.

The panna cotta dessert was strike three. I don’t know what I was expecting, after having my hopes dashed by the previous two dishes. Obviously anything besides pizza is not the restaurant’s forte. In rip-off fashion, the bland custard came in an individual ramekin, hardly large enough for one (luckily neither of us wanted to finish it). It’s not an exaggeration to say that the dessert tasted like nothing.

In what is dawning as a new age in Chicago’s pizza history, much of the city’s preferred pies are skewing Neapolitan. My condolences to Gino, Giordano, and Lou, but demand ain’t in your favor. Tasting the individual components of each slice, working your way from the soft and dripping center to the toasty crunch of the puffed edge, is a far more satisfying pizza binge than an artery-filling savory pie. True to its title, Antica Pizzeria has its priorities straight. They strive to replicate old world Naples in design and product, with their wood-burning brick oven spitting ‘em out like a practiced machine. Seeing as this oven is the only machine working well here, I wish I could erase the rest of the menu’s blemishes from memory. Does Antica have what it takes to achieve holy grail status? Perhaps in time the same ravenous LTH and Yelp blogger masses that migrate to the “Napoli Twins” will make the flock here; in which case, we’ll find out.

One Comment on "New Kid on the Neapolitan Block"

Josh

Couldn’t agree more with your assessment. I had a truly cringe inducing service experience at this restaurant, the pinnacle of which was starting my meal with a fork that was crusted in hardened cheese, only to have it replaced by one that was covered in syrup. We opened the meal with the saddest calamari I have ever had, overfried to the point of being burnt, yet totally soggy.

Then came the pizzas - totally, shockingly, amazing delicious. We had the Margherita, the salami, and the crazy concoction of ham, peas, mushrooms, and eggs. All three were top notch, with particular props for the thick, spicy, and sweet salami. I asked the chef where he got it from and he said a guy named Mario who ships it from Italy. The ham, pea, mushroom pizza really made up for all the failings I had to start. Chef said he stews the peas in sweated sweet onions and the combo really worked well.
I wish I had some right now.



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