Marco Schiavoni thought he couldn’t take another January in Chicago. A 31-year-old baker from Rome, Schiavoni moved here in 1996 and got a job cooking at Bice. After one winter he’d had enough, and the Bice restaurant group transferred him to Los Angeles, Vail, and finally Miami. But when he heard a space was available on Division near Milwaukee and Ashland, directly across from Mas, he saw an opportunity. Schiavoni placed an overseas call and got his 36-year-old cousin Fabio Marogiu, another baker, on the line. Soon they were both headed to Chicago.

Opened last September in the former home of Cafe Scruffy, the sandwich shop specializing in Irish breakfasts, Pizza Metro is all about baking. According to Schiavoni, the breads and pizzas of Rome are rivaled only by those of Naples. “Our good things are our pizza, gnocchi, and pastry, because they come from flour,” explains Schiavoni. “Anyone can make lasagna, and we do, although we only serve it like my mom used to make, without ricotta cheese. Frankly, we only serve Caesar salad because Americans like it. It’s what we can bake that makes us different.”

Counter seats give a clear view of meal prep; you can watch sheets of pizza being rolled out to rise on well-oiled, 32-inch-square sweet blue iron pans that Schiavoni had specially made in Rome. Pastas are prepared on a battered industrial Vulcan stove resting next to the double-doored pizza oven, and large speakers perch on top of the side-by-side refrigerator and freezer, belting out mournful Latin tunes. The smell of baking dough permeates the air.

Pizza is definitely one of Pizza Metro’s good things. Sheets of plush crust are pulled steaming from the oven and covered with a whole market’s choice of toppings, including grilled chicken and vegetables, sausage, black and green olives, and blue cheese. Schiavoni proudly notes that he serves “the most famous Roman pizza,” potato and rosemary. Thick slices of rosemary-roasted potatoes are scattered like pepperoni and covered with mozzarella. Then the white pizza is cut down into rectangles, which are further divided into a half dozen small squares. Each slice is garnished with its own potato and served on a cutting board covered with wax paper. Schiavoni and Marogiu plan to change pizzas seasonally; lighter offerings for spring and summer will include pizza caprese and pizza topped with shrimp. About the only variety served regularly that’s prepared especially for American stomachs is the grilled chicken. “Only Americans eat chicken on their pizza,” laughs Schiavoni.

They also offer a short menu of lasagnas, eggplant Parmesan, salads, and soup. Minestrone is made thick the traditional way, with the broth reduced to enhance the flavor. Specials, served after 5 PM, are listed on the blackboard behind the counter and include a pasta and gnocchi with meat, marinara, or four-cheese sauce. While the pasta is pretty unmemorable, the gnocchi–a traditional Roman favorite made from semolina flour and potatoes–are light and tender and melt in your mouth, just as proper gnocchi are supposed to.

The cousins’ talent is also apparent in their elaborate desserts. A cooler at the front of the restaurant is piled high inside and out with clear plastic clamshells full of slices of pastry, which can also be bought by the pan: the obligatory tiramisu, Sacher torte, and hand-dipped profiteroles filled with vanilla whipped cream. There’s mimosa, a double layer of yellow cake filled with whipped cream and a center of sabayon and Belgian chocolate, with optional toppings of strawberries or chocolate hazelnut spread; and grandmother cake, squares of pastry crust topped with baked custard and sprinkled with toasted, glazed pine nuts. Cheesecake is a hefty square of crust topped with sweetened ricotta cheese, criss-crossed with a lattice of more crust, and drizzled with Nutella. In the apple tart the pastry is filled with layers of soft cake, custard, and thick slices of fruit. Even simple desserts like crostatas–traditional sweets made from dough baked into a crust and topped with imported apricot and raspberry jam–look like they should be nibbled in an Italian cafe.

While Schiavoni and Marogiu help support Pizza Metro by making cakes on the side for restaurants (including Bice) and catering companies, word of mouth about their little pizzeria on Division has begun to spread. “A couple from Indiana saw Pizza Metro listed on a Web site as one of the best pizza places in Chicago,” notes Schiavoni. “They liked our pizza so much, they’ve been back twice since.”

Pizza Metro is at 1707 W. Division, 773-278-1753.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.