“The whole Italian peninsula is kissed by God.” And the Puglia region – which is blessed with an extensive coastline and rich farmlands – is “a hidden gem within a gem,” says Joe DeMonte, co-owner of Macello, a casual West Loop eatery specializing in Puglian cuisine.
DeMonte, who proudly hails from the southeastern region, has gone to great lengths to create a true Puglian dining experience. Sit at the bar, and you just might find a glistening bowl of plump Cerignola olives waiting for you. I found these ginormous olives entrancing. They are bright red, as well as the usual black and green. (Olive producers merely dye them red for fun, DeMonte explains.)
Insistent that the hand-tossed pizzas baked in the restaurant’s traditional wood-burning oven taste molto autentico, Macello uses a particular brand and grind of pizza flour – Granoro “00” – imported from the Puglian town of Corato (Bari).
“The flour is so finely ground that when you eat a pizza here, it doesn’t sit in your stomach. It’s very light,” DeMonte says.
Indeed the pizzas are light, as I know from having shamelessly eaten several of Macello’s creations. Here, pizzas are topped with Puglian specialties such as rich and creamy Burrata cheese, dry-cured Sopressata salami and the region’s world-famous extra virgin olive oil. Macello also uses fresh vegetables and herbs that grow abundantly in the region, including peppers, tomatoes and fresh basil.
The Bianca ($13) – fresh cherry tomato, mozzarella, extra virgin olive oil, basil and arugula – has garnered the most attention. Chicago magazine named it one of the city’s “Best Pizzas” in 2010. But others should not be overlooked. Topped with Burrata, Barese sausage and those amazing Cerignola olives, the Macello ($13) is like a Puglian sampler plate. But even the humble pies, such as the classic Margherita ($12), are notable.
Puglians, however, don’t live on pizza alone. DeMonte describes his extensive menu offerings as “peasant food,” because the dishes originate from one of Italy’s poorest areas. “It’s the food we all grew up with, ” says DeMonte, referring to himself and his Puglian business partners. But he also notes that the fresh, hearty and flavorful cuisine “is spectacular,” since the region boasts some of Italy’s very best seafood and produce.
Macello features a number of assaggini ($8), or appetizers (including Barese sausage, shrimp, stuffed mussels and stuffed artichokes), which arrive piping hot in terra cotta bowls from the eatery’s auxiliary wood-burning oven. Chops, steaks, fish and seafood ($28-$30) are also cooked in the stone oven.
Additionally, the restaurant serves a variety of traditional pastas and risottos. Its signature dish is orecchiette. “When you mention orecchiette, you know we are talking about Puglia and only Puglia,” DeMonte says. Macello offers the ear-shaped pasta in different preparations including cime di rapa ($15) (broccoli raab with extra virgin olive oil, red pepper flakes and garlic) and braciole (rolled beef sirloin) ($19).
Lucky for me, DeMonte treated me to a generous helping of farro ai frutti di mare ($26). I had never experienced this whole grain before and was taken with farro’s nutty taste. Topped with a mix of fresh seafood and prepared like a risotto — using seafood juices, white wine and olive oil as the cooking liquids – this savory dish is currently my favorite on Macello’s menu. Indeed, Joe, it is spectacular!
1235 West Lake Street
Chicago, Illinois 60607