I would not abandon my children for Bonci pizza. To be honest I wouldn’t abandon anyone’s children for any pizza. You’re probably wondering why I am I speaking of indulging in gross parental negligence as it relates to pizza in the first place. It’s because when Anthony Bourdain first tasted Gabrielle Bonci’s pizza in Rome during the first season of his television show “The Layover” he said, “It’s amazing … You want it. You want it bad. Your life would be so much better if you have this right now. Leave your family. Abandon your children … You know you want it.”
Bourdain is a devoted dad, and I would bet all of my vital organs that as much as he loved this pizza he would also not leave his daughter. But, what this made-for-television hyperbole does suggest is that Bonci’s Roman-style pizza is so good, that, in the same way you would if you were addicted to any manner of opiates, you might do crazy things to obtain it.
I can tell you whether that’s actually true because Chicago has been the lucky recipient of not one, but two Bonci pizzas, the only city outside Rome to have one. There is a location in the West Loop and one in Wicker Park (which I visited).
Before I tell you whether you will wet yourself with joy upon consuming Bonci pizza, let’s talk about what it is. The dough is made with a proprietary blend of wheat flours, which are mixed with EVOO (that’s how the website describes them – not sure if Rachael Ray is a partner here) water, and salt, and left to proof for 48-72 hours.
The dough-making process and subsequent bake results in a crust which exhibits a cracklin’ soot-mottled bottom and a bubble-rich soft, chewy-interior. The cross-sections of slices pictured on the Bonci website look much airier and well-risen than the pieces I had in Wicker Park.
I suspect that is because the curated food porn on the Bonci website reflects freshly-baked slices, whereas the slices I had in Wicker Park were already cooked. As the pies sat, I believe the toppings smooshed the initial oven rise down and that the crust didn’t quite spring back during the reheating phase.
If this whole process sounds a little like adolescent afternoons wasted at the Sbarrro in the mall food court, you’re not totally wrong. In fact, the process can be a little more confusing when things get busy. Instead of filing along in an orderly Sbarro line, you take a number from one of those red plastic ribeye-shaped machines you usually find at a butcher counter and wait for your digits to pop up on the red LED display near the soda cooler at Bonci. Then you point at the pizzas you like and mime how thick of a slice you want cut off from the larger rectangular pie sitting on the counter. Typically, a single slice or a ¼ lb of pizza (pizza is priced by the pound) is about 3 inches wide on the short side of slice and maybe like 8-10 inches on the long side.
Where things get different from mall pizza is that in addition to having a two or three day rise (as opposed to all-purpose flour and commercial vegetable oil-infused dough made in the Hobart mixer in the back that morning because Bob took too many bong hits and forgot to make a batch last night) the Bonci pies are topped with D.O.C.-quality prosciuttos, cloud-light ricotta, Calabrian chili etc.. Which is to say, this is like Sbarro for Kardashians. Well, I suspect actual Sbarro might exactly be Sbarro for Kardashians, so what I really mean is Sbarro for discerning foodies who don’t mind spending a little more for very high-quality pizza.
I loved the lump sausage with Calabrian chili. If any flavor combination is likely to blow your mind, it’s the ricotta with zucchini, lemon zest, and pepper. The silky ricotta used here is not the tire rubber-infused curd you might find at Jewel, but, is instead an ambrosial dollop.
Back to that reheated crust: the result is better than 9 out 10 pizza crusts in Chicago. Like my friend Andrew Kaplan (check out his Beyond the Plate podcast) recently posted on Instagram, please do not compare this to the ultra-bready Pequod’s. Bonci crust is a bread apart, which means if it did not have toppings, it is so good, you would still crave and eat it. But, because the airy interior is compressed a little, I would say it’s fair to compare a Bonci slice to one from a local craft pizza maker who delivers you a fresh pie made-to-order. If I have the time to do so I will still take a fresh Paulie Gee’s or a Spacca Napoli pie over a reheated Bonci slice.
But, at Bonci, I can get three or four different flavor combinations for the price of one of Spacca’s single pies. So, if you like to mix and match like you’re grazing the bulk bins at Whole Foods when no one is looking (don’t judge), then you will absolutely love these slices. Also, if you want a top three or four Chicago slice and you want it in five minutes, this is your only option.
So yeah, I’m being picky, but the ultimate verdict is that Bonci is well-crafted pizza with rare ingredient combinations. I may not abandon my family for it, but I most definitely would leave a kid in the backseat of the car with the air conditioning running for five minutes while I procure a slice.
Bonci is located at 161 N. Sangamon or 1566 N. Damen