Creating “La Pizza” At Spacca Napoli

By Emily Loutfy | Monday, December 19, 2011

Pizza maker Henry Deleon works beside Spacca Napoli's imported wood-fired oven. Credit: Emily Loutfy

The smell of fresh dough lofts through the open kitchen. A lone man stands behind the stone countertop, furiously chopping away, preparing for the dinner crowd. These seem to be common sights and smells at an everyday pizzeria, but Spacca Napoli Pizzeria, 1769 W. Sunnyside Ave., doesn’t fit into this category.

A city worker enters for an inspection, and right away, owner and chef Jonathan Goldsmith offers him a bowl of “zuppa,” or soup. The inspector declines, but still laughingly says, “This place is cleaner than my house.”

Goldsmith makes this kind of hospitality a regular occurrence. Whether he’s offering a glass of wine to a customer, or “clienti” as he likes to call them, waiting for a to-go order, bringing pizzas and beers to new neighbors, or offering soup to a city inspector. Goldsmith, while living in Italy, was often shown this same hospitality.

“The generosity and hospitality, the care that we received, was just amazing, and it’s been very easy for me to take that way of being and doing that here,” said Goldsmith. “I think that’s something that’s been significant in terms of the culture that we’ve created.”

Customer Heather Payne, marketing manager for Sodexo Food Service at Northwestern University, has taken notice.

“I must say that the little complimentary [cannoli] on the way out left a lasting impression. Really, it’s the little things like that which get me to come back.”

Spacca Napoli is known best for its thin crust Napoleon-style pizza. The bright, colorful sauce is blended with a balance of sweet and savory flavors, forcing you to question whether a tomato could be considered a dessert rather than a vegetable. Underneath the sauce and bubbling mozzarella cheese is soft, airy dough with hints of Italian imported olive oil.

Once assembled, the pizza is put into a broad, imported wood-fired oven. It’s clearly the beating heart of the restaurant, and the first grand item that is seen upon entering. Because of the smoldering temperatures, the pizza takes only seconds to make, resulting in almost instant-gratification.

The Margherita pizza is ready to be savored by a hungry customer. Credit: Emily Loutfy

Goldsmith said he tries to bring in a lot of conversation between himself and his staff about food or things like oven temperature, so they can discuss what to accentuate or to change.

“The food is very important. But in some ways, what I think is even more important, is the community that is created by breaking bread. I think it’s essential that pizza is food…but that it becomes a social medium,” said Goldsmith.

Chicago is famous across the nation as a city that knows pizza. An endless number of restaurants have their own versions of the pizza, attracting customers from far and wide.

Spacca Napoli doesn’t seem to have a problem with competition, however. Goldsmith says that the restaurant sees a mix of customers, from local families and couples, young and old, to clients who will drive an hour and a half from the suburbs for authentic, artisan pizza.

“We have so many great pizzerias here in Chicago that are great for this community,” said Goldsmith. “But I just want to each day get up and try make the best possible pizza that I can.”

Goldsmith, along with wife Ginny and daughter Sarah Rose, have been doing more than just creating light, piping hot pizza since Spacca Napoli opened on Valentine’s Day, 2006. They have been working to create a community, as well.

Henry Deleon, who has been with the restaurant since it opened, is a pizza maker, or “Pizzielo,” at Spacca Napoli. Many members of his family also work there. Deleon says that the restaurant does its best to come together and make everyone feel included.

“This is more than a restaurant, it’s more like a family,” said Deleon. “He’s more than a boss. He is our friend. Many times we don’t talk like [workers], we talk like friends.”

Goldsmith works to extend this family-like environment to his clients, too.

“I think in some ways that people think that they’re part of our family. I’m very lucky to think that I’m a part of their family, and so, I think that’s something that’s evolved from my family in the way that we were cared for. Now we’re sort of giving that back,” says Goldsmith.

Customer Judy Collins, a tax preparer who visits about two times per month with her family, loves the “warm” atmosphere that Spacca Napoli has to offer. Favorites include the burrata cheese, the mixed salad, and the prosciutto, a type of thinly sliced meat. “And the spumoni when they have it,” Collins includes. “Everything!” exclaims Judy’s elderly father, William Quinceno. Both agree that both Goldsmith and the wait staff are very welcoming.

Goldsmith exemplifies his passion for the pizza through his dedication to learning.

“I think of myself as having this ‘bella poncheza,’ or this ‘beautiful craziness’ for the pizza.”

This “beautiful craziness” is what drives Goldsmith to continue his training as a pizza maker. He says the process is ongoing, sharing that he just got back from another training experience in September. According to Spacca Napoli’s website, Goldsmith started as early as July 2004 in creating his plans for the restaurant. He says that in preparation for the pizzeria, spent about 10 of 18 months in Italy, looking around and getting ideas.

He had his first “true hands on experience, significant in learning the hands on fundamentals of pizza making,” in a November 2004 visit.

“It’s a lifelong process.” Goldsmith said.

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