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Mystery Diner: Neo takes pizza back to its Italian roots

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There’s a new place to get pizza in town. And while the pizzeria is new, the pizza it serves is anything but.

Pizzeria Neo, which opened about a month ago in downtown St. Charles, takes an authentic, old-school approach to a food Americans have come to love and call their own. But make no mistake, pizza will never escape its deep Italian roots. The first margherita pizza was baked more than 100 years ago in Naples, Italy, and Neapolitan-style pizza has represented its cultural and regional heritage ever since.

You would never guess Neo has only been open about a month – the restaurant was near capacity and running on all cylinders on a recent Friday night. Diners – enjoying drinks, pizza and conversation – contributed to an atmosphere more becoming of a restaurant that’s been open for years than one that’s been open less than half a year. It was clear the moment we walked in the door that St. Charles residents have taken to this new pizzeria.

Even with a party of two, we were looking at a wait of about 30 minutes. We opted instead to sit immediately at the pizza bar at the back of the restaurant, which turned out to be a real treat. As if the smells weren’t already enough, we’d have to watch other diners’ pizzas being made while we decided and waited on our own. It also gave us the chance to speak with owner Gaetano Sorrentino, who manned the brick, wood-burning oven throughout the night.

Sorrentino greeted us and made us feel right at home. I ordered a Peroni – Italian beer – and my friend ordered prosecco – Italian sparking wine. The menu is simple – as pizza should always be, the chef-owner explained to us. Appetizers included bruschetta variations, meatballs and several Italian salad dishes. The menu also offers a salumi – Italian cured meats – bar.

We ordered eggplant meatballs for our appetizer. They came in a bowl with a garlic toast on the side. Sorrentino touted the meatballs as his mother’s own recipe, and they did not disappoint. The flavors ran deep and delighted our taste buds. We were both amazed at how fresh it tasted, and equally shocked that our “meatballs” were completely vegetarian.

For our pizza, we ordered one white and one red, to enjoy the best of both worlds. Our red was Diavolo pizza, with pomodoro sauce and spicy soppresata – a dry-cured Italian salami. Our white was Pizza Del Giorno, with olive oil, fresh garlic, mozzarella and tomatoes.

While we waited on our pizzas, Sorrentino told us about how he learned authentic Italian pizza while living in Naples during his adolescent years. He wanted to open a restaurant in America that would closely resemble what people would find in a local Neapolitan pizzeria. He seems to be off to a great start.

We also learned while waiting on our pizza that the intimate brick pizza oven was heated entirely by burning wood. Sorrentino prefers oak or hickory. It’s worth noting that the oven itself is big enough for only a handful of pizzas at a time. This assures that every pizza is given individual attention by the oven minder – Sorrentino himself in our case.

Our pizzas came out in what felt like no time, handed to us over the glass of the pizza bar by one of the chefs. They looked so good, it almost seemed wrong to cut into them. Almost.

The light, crisp crusts would have been good to eat on their own, and the ingredients atop them stayed true to the theme of freshness we picked up on throughout our meal. The ingredients on the Pizza Del Giorno played so well together. Even though I’m not generally a tomato lover, I couldn’t get enough. They tasted like they’d just come out of the garden and were backed up very well by the creamy, wet mozzarella cheese.

The Diavolo pizza was my personal favorite of the two. I like spicy food and am always a big fan of crushed red pepper on my pizza. There’s nothing more disappointing to me than ordering something I expect and want to be spicy only to find out it’s been tamed to the point of futility in the interest of appeasing the masses. No such problems at Neo. It was exactly how I wanted it to be, no extra red pepper needed. The spicy flavor stayed on my tongue and alerted my sinuses, two hallmarks and, in my opinion, requirements of spicy dishes.

The portions were appropriately sized. We went home with about a piece of pizza each. And there’s just something extremely appealing about being able to detect each individual ingredient on a craft pizza – something we enjoyed with each of ours. As Sorrentino stressed, simple is the way to go with traditional Italian pizza.

Another good thing about our pizza: It didn’t leave us so full that we couldn’t enjoy dessert. We ordered cherry cheesecake to share and cap off our meal. The cheesecake was delicious and the cherries were decadent. Sorrentino told us how they are exported specially from Italy, which helped explain why they were so uniquely good. Along with a few of these special cherries, the cherry syrup gave the perfect touch of sweetness to the cheesecake’s filling and crust.

Pizzeria Neo is the kind of place I can’t wait to take people who’ve never tried it. The food is fresh and tastes great, and the stories Sorrentino told me demonstrate the love and dedication that obviously inspire his food.

• Mystery Diner is an employee in the newsroom of the Kane County Chronicle.

Pizzeria Neo

31 S. First St., St. Charles

www.pizzerianeo.com

630-377-8700

Hours: Kitchen open 5-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 5 p.m.-midnight Friday and Saturday; lounge open until 1 a.m. every night

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