The beauty of Chicago is that you never have to go anywhere else. Paris? We’ve got plenty of French Impressionists at The Art Institute. India? Stroll down Devon Avenue. Not precisely Mumbai; but close enough. Throw in Chinatown and the Taste of Peru and you might as well stay put. A week in Thailand, and I never ate a single mouthful tastier than anything off the menu at Star of Siam. I’ve been from Antigua to Zurich and everywhere in between. Trust me. Put your feet up. Relax. You’re not missing anything.
OK, Rome is nice. There is nothing here like Michelangelo’s fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. That alone is worth the airfare. Huge, gorgeous, and — as if that isn’t enough— after you’ve spent a morning in stunned awe of the iconic masterpiece, you can stroll over to Bonci’s Pizzarium on Via della Meloria, just outside the walls of the Vatican.
And the pizza there ... like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, words can’t convey the experience.
We rubes tend to think of pizza as coming in two forms: deep dish and flat. Being Chicagoans, we endlessly argue over which is the true pizza, where stuffed pizza fits in (answer: it doesn’t) and should flat be cut into wedges or squares (answer: who cares?). We have no clue there is a third, entirely different type of pizza, represented by Bonci: light, airy crust, with all sorts of toppings — over 1,500 — you must try, served al taglio, as the Italians say, “by the cut.” You tell them exactly how much you want, sampling an inch of this, two inches of that.
It’s worth flying all the way to Rome just to ... oh wait. Never mind. Turns out Bonci opened a second location at 161 N. Sangamon St. two years ago next week. (Yes, yes, it escaped my notice; I’m not New Pizza Parlor Central). Even if you know it’s there, do you know why, with the entire world to choose from, Bonci picked a spot 10 minutes from the Sun-Times for its second location?
How did that happen?
“I worked with Gabriele,” said Rick Tasman, president of Bonci USA, referring to Gabriele Bonci, “the Michelangelo of pizza.” “He had been wanting to come to the United States.”
Of course he had. We have everything here. But why Chicago?
“Knowing Chicago is a pizza town, a big city, he thought it would be a good idea,” said Tasman. “We’ll quickly find out if people in the United States would appreciate it.”
And we do. A second Chicago location has already opened in Wicker Park.
I learned Bonci is here from my younger son (kids have trendy restaurant radar). He brought a box home during my convalescence from surgery. My first non-medical trip out of the house was to Bonci’s.
I ordered three strips: burrata and basil, caramelized onion, and pancetta. Then, acting on my wife’s orders, I brought home more for dinner. So I ate Bonci for lunch and dinner. And you know what? I was glad. I’ll do it again. The crust is very airy, the flour a proprietary blend flown in from Italy. Not loaded with cheese, the pizza doesn’t weigh you down. It liberates you. It gives you wings.
“Our mission, to redefine the pizza experience,” said Tasman. “This is a different pizza, a different way to eat it, different way to purchase it. You come in, we have 20 pizzas, we cut with scissors,”
Sadly, Chicago’s American monopoly is now at an end; a new Bonci just opened in New Orleans, with Miami next.
“We’ve been very well-received,” said Tasman. ”We’ve learned a lot. We’ve been able to replicate what they do in Rome.”
Well, not exactly. They have not replicated the being-next-to-the-Vatican part. That aspect is still absent at both Chicago Boncis. Though it can be forgiven. Let me be honest: the Sistine Chapel, it’s nice, but they don’t let you take cellphone photos. So for many, it will be as if you were never there. And the room is packed with tourists, craning their necks back, the stillness continually broken by guards bellowing “Silenzio per favore!” one of those crazed touches that makes Italy still marginally worth leaving Chicago to visit. Although, with Bonci here, I’d say, you could probably skip Michelangelo and save yourself a trip.