As we pointed out in our BEST earlier this month, some new pizza eateries are promising to change the pizza game in C-U. Pizzeria Antica opened up last week in Downtown Champaign. It serves wood-fired pizzas, a couple of salads, and some simple antipasti platters. It’s “fast-casual,” meaning you order and pay up front, and someone brings your food to you when it’s ready.
I generally try to avoid reviewing restaurants the same week they open — it just doesn’t seem fair. Getting a restaurant up and running is no easy feat, and there are inevitably some quirks that are not revealed until a real service, and can’t be fixed on opening night. That disclaimer being said, I did indeed visit Pizzeria Antica for dinner on opening night and for lunch the next day.
The space, formerly occupied by Ratio Architects, is lovely. It’s clean, bright, and contemporary. The ordering station is directly in front of you after walking through the door. The menu will eventually be posted to a gigantic board behind the ordering podium, but on this occasion was in the form of some sheets of paper.
The menu is pretty simple: wood-fired pizzas ($11-$18), cheese platter ($15), meat and cheese platter ($15), an EVOO platter ($4), the Antica (house) salad, and a Caesar salad (both $10). Imported Italian beer and wine, as well as some San Pelligrino (cans and bottles) and Pepsi products were available. On opening night, there wasn’t any tap water, but there were some bottles of water. These are cans or bottles; there aren’t any fountain beverages.
I ordered the Diavola (Fior di Latte mozzarella, red hot pepper oil, Calabrese salami, fresh arugula, shaved Parmigiano Reggiano, $14), the Pomodorini (cherry tomato, prosciutto di Parma, fresh arugula, shaved Parmigiano Reggiano, $14), as well as the Infused EVOO and Aged Balsamic Vinegar antipasti ($4).
Seating is open, and at dinner last Thursday the tables were separated. When I returned for lunch on Friday, the tables had been put together in the very a la mode cafeteria-style seating. There is a table to the left (west side of the building) that has silverware, cups, and other items you may need. Plates are on the table and aren’t plates at all — they’re pieces of wax paper. This might turn some off, but I think it’s pretty brilliant, since it’s basically just a pizza joint and, quite frankly, you shouldn’t be using a fork and knife to eat pizza. But I can see many instances when a real plate might come in handy, so that is something that might need to be reconsidered.
The EVOO (extra virgin olive oil) platter arrived first, and was adorable. Three different infused olive oils were served in little plastic cups along a 25 year old aged balsamic vinegar, some chopped artichoke hearts, a few olives, sweet drops (little red peppers that are a little tangy), and four slices of Pekara baguette, on a short pizza peel. For $4, this was a pretty good deal, and a nice appetizer. The olive oils were great (garlic and oregano; hot red pepper; lemon and lime) and super flavorful. The citrus EVOO was surprisingly refreshing, and totally delightful. The hot pepper oil was indeed spicy, and the garlic and oregano was assertive. The balsamic was thick and sticky sweet — it was delicious. I would have liked more things to dip and dunk, since the oils were so flavorful. I ended up dipping some of my pizza crust in the remaining oils and balsamic, which was an excellent choice, if I do say so myself.
from top left: aged balsamic, red pepper evoo, lemon lime evoo, garlic oregano evoo
The pizzas (or shall I say, pizze) arrived quickly. They were beautiful. Check it out:
Pizza is really all about the dough, don’t you think? And for wood-fired dough to be good, it has to be fired at a hot enough temperature to cook it through. This dough was good. It was chewy and a little dense. The wood char was excellent; the char was what brought all of the flavors of the pizza toppings together. All of this was because the pizza makers at Pizzeria Antica strive to offer an “authentic Neapolitan pizza,” according to the standards established by Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletan, The True Neapolitan Pizza Association.
I really, really enjoyed the Diavola. I’m a fan of spicy, and the combination of red pepper oil and salami brought enough to the table without overdoing it. The mozzarella was soft and mild, and the fresh arugula not only provided a lovely burst of color, but also a peppery freshness that cut through the heaviness of the fatty meat and cheese. The shaved Parmigiano on top was nutty and salty, and helped meld all of the toppings together. There seemed to be a sprinkling of salt (sea salt, maybe?) across the top of the dough, and I found this extra bit of sodium unnecessary. It made things just a little too salty.
The Pomodorini was equally tasty. The sweet cherry tomatoes, spicy arugula, and shaved Parmigiano were subtle, but when eaten with the slightly salty and meaty Proscuitto di Parma, combined for a satisfying, sophisticated bite.
The next day I had the Bianca (pictured above; Fior di Latte mozzarella, ricotta, caprino, pecorino, $14). The dough was just as good as the previous night. The four cheeses — sourced from cows, goats, and sheep — were all fairly mild. The white pizza was creamy and indulgent, but not particularly complicated or assertive in flavor. I also had the Margherita ($11). The center of the pizza was a little soft. It could have been that the ovens weren’t quite hot enough, or that — it pains me to say — there may have been just a little too much cheese on top. The pizza was still delicious, though. The San Marzano tomatoes were perfectly seasoned — that is, they weren’t over salted or doused with dried herbs—and melded beautifully with the basil and mozzarella. And with the char on the dough? It tasted like summer.
The last item I tried was the Antica Greens salad ($10). It was a slightly oversized salad — enough to share with another person as an appetizer — but even with the little sweet drop peppers, artichoke hearts, and mixed greens, it wasn’t anything special. The dressing was good; the EVOO was the leading flavor there. But I don’t know if I’d go out of my way for this salad, especially at the hefty price of $10. And since there aren’t any plates, it just made for a difficult eating situation.
Pizzeria Antica is a fantastic addition to Downtown Champaign, and I’m really excited about all of the delicious pizzas I’m going to eat very, very soon. Once the restaurant owners and staff find their footing and make some small adjustments, I think it’ll be better than it already is. Everyone working was super friendly, genuinely excited to be there, and informative, especially about menu items. The atmosphere was bright, and the music was vaguely Italian-American (I heard Frankie Valli and other mid-century Italian-American “classics”), and wholly enjoyable. On each occasion I visited, “Oh, what did you get?” was a question heard throughout the restaurant, as people were turning to other tables to compare notes. Diners seemed more than pleased with their meals.
In a couple of weeks, there will be a gelato bar at the front of the restaurant serving up scoops and Lavazza coffee, which is almost as good as having a real ice cream shop in town. I’m really hoping that affogato will be on the menu, because after eating an entire pizza on my own, I’ll be in serious need of a little pick me up.
Editor’s note: Pizzeria Antica opens at 11 a.m., and is open until 9 p.m., or until the dough runs out. Since the dough takes a day to cure, there is a set amount. On opening night, the restaurant ran out of dough at 6:30 p.m. I’m willing to bet that making the right amount will be a bit of a challenge for the first few weeks, so plan accordingly, and have a bit of patience until they figure it out.
Pizzeria Antica is located at 10 East Chester Street in Champaign, and is open daily from 11 a.m.-9 p.m., or whenever the dough runs out.
All photos by Jessica Hammie.