Restaurant review: West Dundee's Woodfire Brick Oven Pizza gets neoNeapolitan pizza right

Does anyone get excited about a new pizza place anymore? You should when it comes to Woodfire Brick Oven Pizza in West Dundee.

Open since Aug. 17 in the former location of Francesca's Campagna, husband and wife team Joe and Anne D'Astice have been building on their Rockford-based pizza concept at the busy corner of Main and Second streets. Woodfire began in 2010 as a mobile wood-fired pizza oven catering events, then it transitioned into a brick-and-mortar restaurant in downtown Rockford five years later. The West Dundee space has been handsomely remodeled and expanded into one spacious pizza palace that offers appetizers, pizzas, sandwiches, salads, desserts and just introduced last week - handmade pastas.

The ruby and slate color scheme is modern with the wood-burning oven and sleek bar as centerpieces. We snagged a table by the window on an early Wednesday evening for views of bustling Main Street and noticed that the eastern wall of tables are furnished with USB outlets (the bar also has them). There were a few patrons dining at the bar and couples and families enjoying medleys of pizzas at the tables.

For drinks, diners can choose among eight beers on tap including a signature Woodfire Blonde Ale brewed at Crystal Lake Brewing. My dining companion opted for a Half Day Frozen Tundra APA and I went with the on-tap Pacificana Chardonnay from California. Both were fine choices. White wines range from $7-$10 per glass and reds are $8-$15. Joe D'Astice's favorite is a Round Pond Kith & Kin Cabernet Sauvignon that runs $15. Next time I'll dive into one of the signature cocktails ($8.50-$12) like a Cranberry Lemondrop or seasonal sangria.

  Bartender Jason Ostick pours a TiAmo Barbera wine on tap at Woodfire. Patrick Kunzer/

As for dinner, although the Havarti-stuffed coccoli (cheese-stuffed deep-fried dough finished with garlic butter and salt and pepper) was intriguing, we knew pizza was the plan, so instead we got underway with an order of Meatball Gigante. And it was. The housemade baseball-sized mix of veal and pork bathed in slow-roasted ragú accompanied by crostini for dipping was tender and flavorful. But we wished for more of the sauce. (You can also relish the savory meatball and sauce on a baguette - one of two sandwiches on the menu).

  Woodfire's burrata appetizer features fresh mozzarella and cream, grape tomatoes, olive oil and balsamic glaze on focaccia. Patrick Kunzer/

Other appealing appetizers included burrata (fresh mozzarella and cream, grape tomatoes and balsamic glaze on focaccia). The D'Astices get the handmade burrata delivered weekly from Puglia, Italy. Joe D'Astice says the marinated and charbroiled octopus is insanely popular at the West Dundee location. We noticed an adjacent table digging into fried Rhode Island calamari and artichokes. There's also a roasted vegetable fondue; honey ricotta toast; warm marinated olives; and earthy Tuscan fries cooked in duck fat and finished with Parmesan, garlic, fresh herbs and black truffle sea salt.

I think an appetizer or two plus one of the three entree salads would make a grand dinner if you're not in the mood for pizza. D'Astice says the coccoli is great for a table of four because each person can have one of the deep-fried cheesy bites and not get stuffed.

  Woodfire Brick Oven Pizza recently introduced pastas to its menu, including the tagliatelli featuring Bolognese made with beef, pork, veal and prosciutto. Patrick Kunzer/

There was a stamp stating “Pastas Coming Soon!” over the list of imported and housemade pasta, so we overlooked some very attractive selections.

Alas, after we ordered our pizza, we noted other diners ordering pasta, so it is available now. Woodfire's fettuccine, tagliatelle, gnocchi and spaghetti are made in-house by hand and the others are imported. The D'Astices' goal is to have all pasta made on the premises when equipment from Italy arrives.

After indulging in the meatball appetizer, I'm convinced that the spaghetti and meatballs must be outstanding. But I'm a Bolognese fan, so the handmade tagliatelle with that rich slow-simmered meat sauce would be heaven on a chilly autumn night. Ditto for the housemade Roman-style gnocchi in a hearty oxtail ragú. The eight pasta dishes range from $16-$20.

  A sausage and bell pepper pizza finishes cooking in a wood fire brick oven at Woodfire Brick Oven Pizza in West Dundee. Patrick Kunzer/

Among 11 red sauce-based pizzas, Joe D'Astice notes that the most popular are the prosciutto with arugula; a classic Margherita; and pepperoni (with an option to add spicy honey for a sweet kick). Under the specialty pizza heading, you'll find 13 intriguing creations, from a much-ordered lobster pizza (lobster medallions, fresh mozzarella, shredded Grana Padano and drawn butter) to a perky artichoke and Gorgonzola. We went for the sausage with rapini and ricotta, and it was fabulous. Fresh mozzarella and ricotta lend a creamy element; rapini afforded the slightest hint of complementary bitterness; and the fennel sausage was perfectly seasoned.

The sausage comes from a local distributor, is par-cooked (because pizza is in the smoking hot oven for only three minutes) and then finished in the oven atop your pie.

I've had plenty of Neapolitan-style pizza that sports a great crust but a flabby center. Not at Woodfire.

  Joe D'Astice and his wife, Anne, opened Woodfire Brick Oven Pizza in August in West Dundee. The original Woodfire is in Rockford. Patrick Kunzer/

“One of the challenges with this style of pizza is that dough is a living, breathing thing and a wood-burning oven has temperature changes, too,” D'Astice explained. “To get it done correctly each and every time, the pizza is created so that the center is a little sturdier. The style is neoNeapolitan, adapted to retain the best parts of a Neapolitan pizza but more manageable so you don't need a knife and a fork.”

The slightly salted crust holds up to all the toppings, and the edges are wonderfully chewy. Next-day leftovers (I like to reheat it in a covered nonstick pan for a few minutes until the cheese melts) were just as delicious.

Pizzas are 12 inches - one is enough for two people, especially if you indulge in an appetizer. But we noticed many diners enjoying their own pie, ostensibly so each can concentrate on their Buffalo chicken pizza but have a slice of a dining partner's roasted red pepper and goat cheese, too.

In the coming weeks, look for rotating specialty pastas and several protein options like filet mignon and rib-eye steaks, pork chops and chicken entrees.

  Pizza chef Blaike Kirby shreds cheese over a pizza at West Dundee's Woodfire Brick Oven Pizza. Patrick Kunzer/

For a sweet finish, indulge in an apple pie or a s'mores pizza or one of the housemade desserts like crème brûlée, classic tiramisu, zeppole (doughnut holes sided with chocolate and crème Anglaise) or gelato. Woodfire's 808 cheesecake is an award-winning slice from a Roscoe, Illinois, bakery. D'Astice's personal favorite is bourbon bread pudding. So many delicious options.

As we head into the Midwestern chill, I anticipate making more than a few visits to Woodfire Brick Oven Pizza for a robust bowl of pasta and another go at the two dozen pizzas.

Woodfire Brick Oven Pizza

127 W. Main St., West Dundee, (847) 844-0886,

Cuisine: Wood-fired pizzas, handmade pastas and more

Setting: Modern, sleek and spacious

Prices: Appetizers: $5-$15; salads: $10-$12; pasta: $16-$20; sandwiches: $12; pizza: $14-$24; dessert: $4-$8; kids' pizza or pasta: $6

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday; noon to 10 p.m. Saturday; closed Sunday and Monday

<i>Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.</i>

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