Anthony Bourdain did wonders for the popularity of Pizzarium Bonci, the tiny and divey pizzeria in Rome with a cult following. Gabriele Bonci showcased his genius three-ingredient pizzas on a 2011 episode of The Layover with Anthony Bourdain and Americans rushed to the unassuming spot to try Bonci’s inventive and simple three-ingredient pies. Italy was the only place in the world to eat these pizzas, but that will change by mid-July when Bonci opens at 161 N. Sangamon St. in the West Loop.
“You can get this pizza in two places: Rome or Chicago,” Bonci USA President Rick Tasman said.
Tasman and business partner Chakib Touhami have the rights to open Boncis across the world, excluding Italy and the four countries that border that country. While travelers gush about Bonci on social media sites like Yelp and Trip Advisor, Tasman expects a bit of a learning curve in Chicago.
Bonci Chicago will be set up like a deli and customers will be given numbers. Once they’re called, staff will explain what’s in the pizza display case. Servers will then cut slices up wth scissors and charge customers by the pound. It’s a quintessential pizza al taglio experience, and an essential stop in Rome.
Touhami and Tasman are restaurant investors and they’re excited to spread Bonci’s gospel. They worked with Top Chef contestant Richard Blais on Flip Burger in Atlanta.
“The first bite changes everything, you know?” Touhami said. “It’s all bubble-airy dough...it’s not the crunchy edges of a regular pizza. It’s the little thin bottom that’s crunchy—but everything else is soft dough.”
Customers routinely wait in long lines in Rome, ready to pounce on special pizzas, some of which may be baked only once a year. Bonci has served thousands of varieties pizzas in Rome. Varieties include cherries and foie gras, raspberries with roasted potatoes, grilled octopus, and Margherita slices. There’s no customization—though customers could call ahead and order a specific pizza for special occasions in Chicago. The selections will cater to meat-eaters, vegetarians, and vegans. It’ll have beer and wine in coolers, but management isn’t sure if they’ll offer diet sodas or any other pop. Bonci isn’t a fan of products with high-fructose corn syrup. The menu may change a bit for American tastes, but Bonci will have the final word.
“If he says ‘I don’t want pepperoni here,’ we’re not having pepperoni here,” Tasman said.
Fret not, there’s plenty of speck and other Italian meats that could be used as substitutes. Bonci also makes his own porchetta, and fans should expect to see that in Chicago. Besides the pizza, look for suppli, the traditional Italian fried balls. Bonci staff will stuff theirs with spaghetti and cheese. The founder will travel from Italy to Chicago and stay for about a month to oversee the opening.
The Chicago team is working hard to ensure they adhere to Bonci’s high standards. The water temperature for the pizza dough must be precise—it must be filtered and consistent. The cast-iron pizza pans are custom made, and the ingredients for the pizza dough—including the heirloom wheat flour—are being shipped from Italy. It might be a surprise to many Americans, but Bonci uses an electric pizza oven. It’s the same oven they use in Italy, Tasman said, and it retains temperatures better than others.
“One of the battles is to fight your memory,” Tasman said. “The pizza needs to be exactly how it tasted like in Rome.”
Bonci USA is a separate company from Gabrielle Bonci’s company, one that’s ready to seize opportunities in other American cities. Tasman mentioned Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and Miami. Touhami talks about bringing Bonci to London and the Middle East using Halal meat without pork. But right now, Chicago is the major battleground. The team realizes there’s competition with Chicago deep-dish, Chicago-style pub style, and the renaissance of quality Neapolitan crusts. They are intent on establishing the Bonci brand in America. They also expect to open a second pizzeria in Chicago.
“If you can make it here—to mention the old Mary Tyler Moore Show—you can make it anywhere,” Tasman said. Find out if it can make it here starting next month.