Spacca Napoli: a taste of Naples in Chicago

In all great cities, there are places betweenwork and home where good food, friendsand a glass of wine or two can revive thespirit. For a growing number of Chicagoans,that place is Spacca Napoli (spaccanapolipizzeria.com), a Neapolitan-stylepizzeria at the corner of West Sunnysideand North Ravenswood Avenues, ownedand operated by Jonathan Goldsmith, aformer psychiatric social worker turnedcertified pizzaiolo. Since opening his pizzeria’sdoors on Valentine’s Day 2006,Goldsmith has made it his life’s work toserve his customers scrumptious Naples-stylepizza and, more importantly,show how food can bring people from allwalks of life together at a dinner table.

For Goldsmith, the journey to pizzaoccurred in phases: First, he fell in lovewith traditional Italian flavors after athree-year residence in Florence whilehis wife, Ginny Sykes, a painter, concentratedon her art. Upon returningto Chicago in 1991, he worked in constructionand real estate and becameone of the first volunteers and later, aboard member of the Inspiration Café—an organization for the city’s homelesspopulation—but, with the supportof his family and friends, embarked onmultiple “walkabouts” in Naples, wherehe absorbed theculture and culinarymethods of thefood over the years.On his first trip, heconcentrated exclusivelyon the handmotions of pizzaioli, how theystretched the dough and formed ballsin their palms. He cites acclaimedNaples pizzerias such Da Michele (damichele.net), Starita (pizzeriastarita.it), Trianon and Di Matteo as four of thegreatest sources for his inspiration. Today,his quest has clearly paid off: SpaccaNapoli is the only pizzeria in the WindyCity certified by the Associazione VeracePizza Napoletana (AVPN), the AssociazionePizzaiuoli Napoletani (APN) and theAccademia Italiana Della Cucina. Thepizzeria has been favorably reviewed inmultiple national publications, includingBon Appetit, Food & Wine and TheNew York Times. But, beyond praise andauthenticity, Goldsmith embraces hisbusiness philosophy of placing an emphasison creating a comfortable atmospherefor guests. “The notion of coming togetherat the table is the essence of what we do,”he explains. “We see the whole cycle of lifein here. We have six-month-olds suckingthe crusts and older people coming in toeat. To me, everyone is the same whenthey come in here. People need little stopsthat allow for meaningful actions. I seethe pizzeria as offering that.”

Authentic by Design

A 1,000-square-foot expansion in 2009added 40 seats and a private diningroom; the store shares a space with Sykes’loft painting studio and draws on manyNaples-inspired decorations that showthe fusion of the couple’s passions for artand pizza. The terra-cottafloors featureartisanal tile work incorporated into thedesign, and the walls are lined with Italianphotographs and paintings—many bySykes and others passed along from familycollections.

However, the kitchen is where evenmore measures have been taken to honorclassic methods. The oven at Spacca Napoli—also decorated by Sykes (among otherartists) with the image of wheat taken froman ancient Roman coin—was custom-builtby third- and fourth-generation artisansfrom Naples. All materials were carefullyselected and shipped from Italy to Chicago.The oven typically burns at about 850˚ andpies cook in 60 to 90 seconds. “The form ofthe oven is identical to what you could haveseen in Pompeii more than 1,000 yearsago,” Goldsmith explains. “I had roughly14,000 pounds of material brought over.There are three types of brick, three typesof sand and special concrete, and thenthere are special steel pieces that formand frame the oven. When I had thingsstructurally ready to build, I had the buildersflown over, and it was built in aroundseven days.” Meanwhile his “diving arms”mixer helps ensure the dough is stretchedgently for a soft pliable result. “It’s a beautifulmachine,” he says. “It could be in theMuseum of Modern Art. It replicates thehand movements of bakers reaching downand pulling up the dough.”

Many of the Naples pizzerias that inspiredGoldsmith serve only a handfulof pie varieties, but Spacca Napoli offers12 pizzas on the menu. The selection isa product of his travels and suggestionsfrom pizza-savvy customers and friends.“Whenever I’m in Italy, I’m like the Terminator:I zoom in and lock on to newchoices,” he explains. “The last time I wasthere, I borrowed a bicycle from my hoteland visited pizzerias with just a pen andpaper. Whenever I see an ingredient or acombination I’m not familiar with, I writeit down so I can try it out.”

Back home, no expense is spared whenstocking ingredients. Goldsmith andhis pizza makers use the most authenticand freshest ingredients available. Thetomatoes, oils and many of the cheesesare imported from Italy. While acquiringItalian salumi can be challenging, hemaintains quality by purchasing many ofthe meats from an Italian-style salumeriain New York. Among the bestselling pizzason the menu are the Bufalina, a simplecombination of basil, mozzarella di bufalaand olive oil; the Prosciutto e Rucola,with Provola cheese, prosciutto di Parma,arugula and Parmesan; and the Salsicciae Broccoletti, topped with Italian sausage,rapini and fi or di latte mozzarella. Still,the menu changes with the seasons. “Wework with whatever is fresh at the moment,whether it’s ramps in the spring,when the leeks come after the snow, orzucchini flowers in the summer,” he explains.“My favorite foccacia has ramps,anchovy, olive oil and rosemary. We alsomake a pie with zucchini blossoms wherewe bake squash and fold into it ricotta dibufala, top it with peppers and artichokes,and then we incorporate the zucchiniflowers, stuff them with ricotta, put themin the fryer and top the pizza with them.”

Philosophy and Business

Despite the uncertain economy and risingfood prices these past few years, SpaccaNapoli, like many other mom-and-poppizzerias, has remained fortunate and embracedby the neighborhood. Goldsmithhas seen customers opt for a less expensivebottle of wine or pass on salad or antipasti,
he says, but sales have continuedto grow nonetheless—by as much as 10%each year. Proud of the level of service hispizzeria offers, he points out that many ofhis employees have been with him sincethe doors first opened—he considersthem family. The 2009 expansion was inresponse to wait times that often nearedan hour and a half. Goldsmith can onlyattribute this demand and growth to hispersonal philosophies on business andpizza, which are essentially intertwined:Offer good service, serve good food,love your work and make sure everyonefeels welcome when entering your store.“When the garbage man comes by in themorning, we invite him in for an espresso,and in the summer, we save the Parmesanrinds for people whose dogs havestrong stomachs,” he explains. “I considermyself a baby in the world of pizza. I’mstill learning, and I will be until I die. It’smy wish to try and replicate the tradition.I have no need or desire to change thedough or fuse different styles together.I’m so excited about what I’m doing rightnow. I truly love being here.”

Andrew Abernathy is PMQ’s associate editor.