After testing the waters with a brief soft opening, restaurant owner Ramin Karimkapour and chef Marco Fornelli officially opened the doors to Pizzeria Antica on Thursday, June 18. Situated snugly in the heart of downtown Champaign at 10 Chester Street, the pizzeria boasts a pair of cherry red wood fired ovens transported straight from Naples. Reaching a capacity of 800 degrees, the special ovens greatly expedite the cooking process, churning out twelve inch Neapolitan-style personal pies every 90 seconds and slashing the ordering process time to a mere three to four minutes. Furthermore, hungry patrons can peruse a vegetarian and vegan friendly menu that features 13 types of traditional pizzas with various ingredients imported from Italy. So far the most popular menu item has been the Margarita pizza. In addition to pizzas, the restaurant currently offers a number of salads and antipastos, and plans to install a gelataria called “Bella Ciao” that will serve gelato as well as Italian coffees and liqueurs by the end of the month. By coordinating with Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery, Karimkapour hopes to offer unique goat’s milk gelato but also plans to have 16 conventional flavors including pistachio and raspberry. Operating from 11 a.m to 9 p.m. or until the store runs out of dough, Pizzeria Antica appears to be an authentic new addition to Champaign Urbana’s flourishing food scene. The Food & Drink staff’s Madeline Decker provides a first-hand review below.
Will Pizzeria Antica make its mark in downtown Champaign? Perhaps it’s too early to say. On the new eatery’s opening night, I visited to check out the ambience and cuisine. Call me a romantic, but when I heard of a pizzeria opening downtown, I imagined a cozy, dimly-lit dining room with a blazing fire, exposed brick walls and rustic, old-style charm. Aside from exposed brick walls, the restaurant’s interior had an entirely different vibe from what I expected.
With high ceilings, an open kitchen and piles of firewood lining the walls, Pizzeria Antica channels a more modern, industrial feel. Another surprise was the casual atmosphere. After my party and I ordered our food at the front of the restaurant, we seated ourselves at a table where parchment paper squares were provided in place of plates and silverware. The pizzeria serves Neapolitan-style pizzas, which, at twelve inches in diameter and about $10.00-$15.00 each, are enough to feed one or two people. I ordered the Margherita pizza, topped with tomato, fresh mozzarella and basil. The thin crust had great bite to it, and the light char from the oven gave it a subtle smoky flavor. Finished off with fresh ingredients, the pizza loaded vibrant flavor without feeling heavy.
Another member of my party ordered the Diavola pizza, a pie topped with mozzarella and salami that has a nice kick to it courtesy of red pepper oil. The Diavolo was presented attractively with a garnish of arugula and parmesan shavings. With toppings heavier than the thin crust, the pizza slices were difficult to handle and somewhat messy with only napkins and parchment paper. Plates and utensils would have made the experience neater and slightly more pleasant.
Aside from pizza, the menu offers salads and antipasti platters, as well as wine and soft drinks. Wine can only be purchased by the bottle but can be resealed on site. Overall I was pleased with my experience at Pizzeria Antica, but I felt it needed something more to make it memorable. For the price scale, I would have liked more than good pizza with quality ingredients—I would have liked to feel like I had been transported to a pizzeria in Italy, not just by the flavors, but also by the atmosphere. While the ambience through me for a bit of a loop, who knows—maybe people with dig the funky contrast of rustic Italian food in a casual, modern atmosphere. With a promised gelateria and coffee bar opening soon, I think Pizzeria Antica has a chance to find its niche in Champaign-Urbana. I’d like to visit again once the restaurant gets into the swing of things to see how it evolves (and maybe try some of that gelato). Il meglio deve ancora venire. The best is yet to come.