3719 N. Harlem Ave. 773-491-8200
Rating: !!! 1/2 (out of 4)
The sleek wood-and-stone interior and Edison bulbs hanging from the ceiling at Dunning pizzeria Forno Rosso might seem contemporary, even trendy, at first glance, but a longer look reveals owner Nick Nitti's commitment to the traditions of Italy.
There are the bottles of Italian spirits Campari and Aperol displayed prominently above the bar, and the shelves filled with gallon-sized tins of imported olive oil and gigantic jars of Nutella. Shiny and round like a monstrous tomato, the red-tiled pizza oven for which the restaurant is named (Forno Rosso means "red oven") sits right in the center of the open kitchen. A small crucifix and statuette of the pope appear to watch over the pizza makers as they press out the dough.
After 10 years running New York-style joint Pizza Broker in Chicago's Financial District, Nitti decided to switch gears to master the authentic Neapolitan-style pizza he enjoyed during trips to Naples. He wanted to import all of the ingredients from Italy and become certified by VPN Americas, the American Delegation of Italy's Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana, which oversees the art of Neapolitan pizza-making worldwide. And he wanted to open his pizzeria on the strip of North Harlem Avenue where he grew up visiting Italian restaurants and markets. Since earlier this summer, that's exactly what he's been doing.
The crust: Around the edge, the crust is airy with a bit of chew and the tell-tale char marks of a super-hot oven—1000 degrees to be exact. Nitti's prized oven—made by Stefano Ferrara, an Italian maker that has been crafting brick ovens with mortar made from the ash of Mount Vesuvius for more than 100 years—bakes each pizza for a mere 90 seconds. The center is especially thin, with the trademark flop that I expect when holding up a Neapolitan slice.
The sauce: A bright tomato sauce is applied sparingly to the Rosso (red) pies, while pies on the Bianca (white) side of the pizza list get olive oil instead.
The toppings: "The thing with these pizzas is simplicity is the best. Less is better," Nitti said. "Less ingredients, less sauce, less cheese all plays into what we're trying to create." The classic margherita ($10.95) conveys this intent beautifully, dotted with pools of molten fresh mozzarella and basil leaves. The Barese ($14.95) balanced rich, fennel-flecked sausage (blended especially for Nitti by a local butcher) and creamy burrata (cream-filled fresh mozzarella) with the bitterness of rapini–though I could have done with a lighter hand on the sausage. Other toppings range from pancetta and an egg on the Carbonara to spicy soppressata and crushed red pepper on the Rosso Diavolo.
Everything else: To stoke your appetite for pizza, try the Caponata della Nonna, which means "Grandma's caponata" in Italian. Thanks to Nitti's 87-year-old grandmother who comes in twice a week to make this traditional Sicilian eggplant salad served with crostini, it lives up to the name. "When I was growing up, she used to make it on a weekly basis," Nitti said. "It just sat in the refrigerator and we'd just grab a piece of bread and a scoop of that and we'd eat it." And as for those gigantic jars of Nutella near the pizza oven, they're put to use in a dessert pizza made with bananas, strawberries and the addictive chocolate-hazelnut spread.
The bottom line: My date read my mind when he mumbled "This is good--like Italy good," after the first bite. There's no doubt in my mind that Forno Rosso will continue to draw Dunning and Portage Park residents as well as seekers of authentic Neapolitan pies willing to make the lengthy Blue-Line-to-Irving-Park-bus trip. (Alternate plan: Recruit a fellow pizza fan with wheels; there's a parking lot out front.) Forno Rosso is soon to join only a handful of VPN-certified pizzerias in Chicago, and though Nitti's stamp of approval won't be official for a few more days, his pizza is worth a trip anytime.
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