Jonathan Goldsmith’s pizza makes grown men cry. A few years ago, the owner of Spacca Napoli in Ravenswood got his mozzarella provider to sit down and try one of his Neapolitan pies. Of the experience, the provider wrote: “When I bit into it, it put tears into my eyes and I couldn’t help it. For the first time, food meant something much more to me than just curbing my appetite. In a fraction of a second, the best memories of my Neapolitan life went through my mind.”
I understand the sentiment. A few years ago, I visited Brooklyn’s vaunted Roberta’s, and while I enjoyed the pizza, I was confused about all the fuss. It’s not that it wasn’t great. I’d just had the luxury of trying Goldsmith’s pies, which are transcendent. I didn’t really need to go to New York because greatness was in my own backyard.
The secret to Spacca Napoli’s sustained quality lies in Goldsmith’s dedication to the craft and immersion in Italian culture. Like Rick Bayless and his evangelism of regional Mexican, Goldsmith’s championing of the Neapolitan way is boundless. He is fluent in Italian and returns to Naples regularly to hone his craft. Goldsmith, who was working in real estate, actually got his start in pizza because he heard a man speaking Italian on a plane. Never one to miss an opportunity to engage someone who speaks Italian, Goldsmith started a conversation. The guy had a few restaurants and told Goldsmith he should start a pizzeria.
This started a quest and the launch of Spacca Napoli. Goldsmith spent 18 months learning at the hands of masters like Enzo Coccia. He studied the works of Antonio Starita, who once presented his pizzas to Pope John Paul II. Back in the States, Goldsmith imported Italian brick and refractory materials and had third- and fourth-generation Italian builders create his oven. I asked Goldsmith how he had the foresight to make such a serious investment in the oven.
“It’s crazy, right? But I focused on what I could put together to try make a great pizza. I wasn’t the original. Café Roma and Pizza D.O.C. were making good Roman-style pizzas. But Neapolitan pizza is about good flour, a good oven and good ingredients,” he said. “I spent 18 months talking to as many people as possible. I wasn’t thinking about cost, but maybe I should have. I didn’t realize how stupid I was … but the process of making pizza is very simple: You need a good mixer and good flour. It’s simple, but focus, I think, makes the difference.”
It does. At Spacca Napoli, the pies, made with Antico Molino Caputo “00” flour, are blistered with a leopard print of wood-fire char and golden honey-colored crust. Fior di latte cheese rounds weep over a moat of sweet and acidic San Marzano tomato sauce. The center is soft and the edges crispy. A cross section of the pie is a matrix of bread bubbles that wafts smoky puffs of yeast. Some Americans don’t like to eat the crust—or cornichon, as Goldsmith dubs it—but at Spacca, those edges are a treasure you don’t leave on the plate. They’re also a telltale sign. Goldsmith said if people are leaving the crust, that’s a hint that maybe things aren’t right. Beyond the pies, Goldsmith said he hopes to replicate the energy of Naples.
“You know that place on Taylor Street [Mario’s Italian Lemonade], and it’s a hot Saturday night and the line for ice is 40 people deep and everyone’s buzzing, sitting on stoops eating their ice?” he said. “That’s the kind of energy I seek.”
Goldsmith has achieved this feel at Spacca Napoli. On weekend nights, people often line the 1700 block of Sunnyside Avenue in Ravenswood, braving the wait for Goldsmith’s pies. A social worker by training, Goldsmith is an intuitive and avid listener. He cultivates hospitality by hearing and then delivering what people want and need.
“When I’m researching ingredients, it’s not enough to trust myself. If I’m looking at new olive oil, vinegar or cheese, I’ll taste it, but I’ll also give it to my Italian friends and our diners and our staff,” he said. “I look to everyone for feedback.”
The greatest secret behind Spacca Napoli is that Goldsmith doesn’t see his restaurant as a destination, but as a lifelong journey. He’s the primary dough maker, and you’ll see him there most days. He experiments. He pays attention to the humidity and the weather, adjusting flour and water proportions to achieve consistency and ultimately superiority in his crusts. He admits that he doesn’t always get it right. Even though he’s been working at this for 12 years, he brings artisans from Italy to train his staff, saying that he’s not yet good enough to be a teacher. He’s also never finished learning.
“My interest is the same as it was in the beginning. I’m still asking the same questions I was 12 years ago. What’s the best cheese? What’s the best flour?” he said. “During the Renaissance, artists entered the guild. They spent years learning about the brushes or laying out pigments. It’s only after a lifetime you become a master when you’re 60 or 70. We don’t know everything and that keeps us going.”
The essentials: Spacca Napoli
1769 W. Sunnyside Ave. 773-878-2420
This article first appeared in Redeye Chicago in a different form.