Italy is underappreciated for being a land of contrasts. Futurism and singular design, Ferraris and high fashion, all exist alongside gaudy opera and overwrought gesticulation. Gregariousness coexists with an understandable fatigue with foreign tourists.
But Nella Pizza e Pasta, 1125 E 55th St., which just received a Michelin Bib Gourmand award for its affordable quality, strikes the right balance in both cuisine and experience. Abundant marble, white tiles and bright lights recall Naples, from whence its cuisine take cues. The service is cheerful, friendly and anticipatory. We ate beautifully. We left satiated. We didn’t break the bank.
“We got a lot of newcomers coming in,” said manager Frank Grassano, who opened the restaurant with his wife Nella, a trained pizziaola, in September 2017. He credited their success to freshness and simplicity — the hallmarks of Neapolitan cuisine. “It was nice that my wife finally got recognized for some homemade pastas and pizzas. It’s a great award.”
We started with Rucola e Parmigiano ($9), an arugula salad made for two. As we ate at the crest of fall and not early spring, the greens lacked just a bit of their peppery bite, but the extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice brightened the salad while the cheese balanced and kept it savory. You could taste the quality of the ingredients. It was a near-perfect beginning to a flavorful evening.
Naples means pizza, and Nella bakes hers in an 850-degree wood-fired oven, yielding a pie that is almost ethereal. The gluten activated just enough to hold the bottom together — it was tender with a delightful chew — almost like a perfectly poached egg. “You get that little chew and softness in the middle, that’s what a Neapolitan pizza should be like,” Frank said.
We had the night’s special, pizza picante, which came with crumbled sausage, salami, pickled cherry peppers, mozzarella and basil ($18). Pork-forward and briny, it appealed to a Chicagoan’s palette, though its richness could have benefitted from slightly more basil. Ultra-rich buffalo mozzarella is available for a $2 upcharge on every pie and would likely have been worth every cent.
Naples is famous for its sea front, so we chose two pastas that showcased seafood. Nella highlights her house-made noodles on the menu, and they sing with simple preparation. Like good oil or parmesan, there is no substitute for its delicate effect. The pasta calamarata ($20), a famous Neapolitan dish, is a lovely reminder that squid need not always be deep-fried, and it comes with black olives, garlic and a goodly amount of red pepper.
The pasta sarracino ($22), a light but filling meal that features pappardelle handmade by Nella, mussels, pecorino black truffle, garlic oil and white wine. From the first to the last bite, the dish was packed with rich, but not overwhelming flavor, each one distinct. The tender mussels were flavored with the right amount of garlic. The pappardelle was cooked al dente and tossed into a white wine sauce with pecorino and black truffle, which provided an unexpected nutty flavor.
We highly recommend those dishes for those trying Nella for the first time and every time after. Superficially simple, we’re sure it would be difficult to recreate at home without years of culinary training and dexterity with Italian cookery, which gives customers the perfect excuse to run to Nella.
Gelato ($7, four flavors available) may have been too obvious and tiramisu ($8) is from Northern Italy, so we went with “babà Napoletano.” Like its French cousin, the cake came out soaked in rum but with a wondrous crust done the way only Italian bakers can. Served with cream and sweet berries, it was a wonderfully continental rendition of shortcake. An espresso reminded us where we were.
There is a full bar — half of the house cocktails requisitely feature Aperol or Campari — with a selection of Italian beers and four wines from Campania available by the glass for $11 as well more than two dozen others by the bottle. Reservations are encouraged: the dining room is small, lively and loud — with a thunderstorm raging outside, patrons waited shoulder-to-shoulder by the host’s station for tables to open.
The menu accommodates many dietary needs; from vegetarian to gluten free to those who cannot consume tomatoes.