Eater intern Alison Kessler contributed this interview.
Third time’s the charm for Italian-born pizzaiola Nella Grassano. Her contentious career has taken her from Spacca Napoli and Nella Pizzeria Napoletana to her current role as chef and owner of Pizzeria Da Nella Cucina Napoletana following a two-year hiatus. Eater chatted with Grassano to discuss her return to the Chicago pizza scene, love for Italian imports and the benefits of a family business.
Where does your love for pizza come from?
My grandfather was a pizza maker, and my father opened his own pizzeria [in Naples]? I was six years old when he started teaching me. I still remember spilling cans of tomato sauce all over myself. But by the time I was 13 I was already a pizza maker. I knew how to make the dough, how to work the oven, everything. I was born in a pizzeria.
How do you describe your pizza style?
Lots of people say, “Oh [you] cook true Neapolitan.” But I cook everything the same as it’s always been done in Naples. I use only fresh ingredients from Italy. I make the dough myself -- I haven’t taught someone else to do it for me. I even have the oven. I had my oven built, brick by brick, with materials shipped from Naples. Three guys from Naples came over to build it.
If you always stick to tradition, how do you keep your pizza and menus interesting?
I do different toppings, depending on what ingredients I can get fresh from Italy. I stick with the bufala mozzarella, the tomatoes, but try different Italian sausages, prosciutto di parma, mushrooms. I’ll do different shapes, though. I’ve done a Mickey Mouse pizza. I can do a bunny pizza, if you want.
What are your favorite restaurants in Chicago?
I really don’t like to go out too much. If I go out, I won’t have pizza or pasta. I’ll go out for a steak because I love the meat here. But usually I’ll cook at home: pasta, meatballs, chicken or fish.
You’ve worked for other pizzerias in the past. Why did you decide to open your own restaurant?
I have no partner this time. I can do it all the way I was taught to do it. There’s nobody on my back to tell me different. My brother is coming [from Naples] to make the entrees: fresh risotto, pasta, gnocchi, salmon. My husband is the manager. He takes care of the business and I take care of the kitchen. Just the way it should be.
· Pizzeria da Nella Cucina Napoletana [website]
· All Pizza Week Coverage