On the (virtual) table: what makes a perfect Neapolitan pizza, how it's essential, and how to get our hands on it amidst the stay-at-home order. I need this pizza, stat.
Ramin Karimpour. Photo by Pizzeria Antica.
Smile Politely: Hello! Can you introduce yourself and tell us your role(s) at Pizzeria Antica?
Ramin Karimpour: I’m Ramin Karimpour, owner and chef — well, pizzaiolo — at Pizzeria Antica.
SP: What inspired the idea of bringing authentic Neapolitan pizza to a midwestern college town like Champaign?
Karimpour: Well, I love pizza. I really love pizza. Once people really get into pizza, eventually you get to where the original thing we call pizza comes from — and that’s undeniably Naples, Italy. Then you try Neapolitan pizza: it’s quite a revelation. Every pizza geek has a story of when and where they first tried Neapolitan pizza. But it is not easy to make.
The ingredients are relatively easy to source, but the main thing is that it requires these huge, hand-built Italian wood burning ovens that can bake the pizza in 90 seconds at 800 degrees. I’ve heard people trying to set their oven on clean mode, but that only kind of works.
So, I bought these ridiculously expensive ovens and essentially built a restaurant around them, so that I could pay for them and share this incredibly delightful pizza with my friends, family, and Champaign-Urbana. I guess I had a calling for this culinary niche.
Photo by Pizzeria Antica.
SP: What’s your favorite thing on your menu?
Karimpour: Whichever pizzeria I go to, I always try the pepperoni which is ubiquitous. Sure, you can try the crazy stuff — we offer those too — but if a pizzeria can do something special with a classic pepperoni, then it’s a good indicator of the pizzeria’s quality.
SP: Give us the perfect pizza/drink/dessert combo.
Karimpour: I like simplicity. I suggest our house wine; we drink it a lot, and we stand by it. Then, a Margherita, it’s our specialty. Then top it all off an affagato which is a scoop of Italian gelato with a shot of espresso in it. With all, that we hope you leave speaking more Italian than when you came in.
SP: If not Pizzeria Antica, where’s your second favorite place to grab a slice?
Karimpour: Papa Del’s, of course. It’s so different from ours but also so consistently good. You can tell that all the pizzas are made with care. My kids and I love Papa Dels.
SP: How do we get our hands on some of that pizza goodness?
Karimpour: You can go to our website Anticachampaign.com. You can order carryout, pay, and even give us your car description, so we can bring your order out to you at our City designated pickup zone. Or if you want delivery, it will be through DoorDash.
SP: Authentic is certainly superior. In what ways is Pizzeria Antica the way to go versus corporate pizza?
Karimpour: Corporate is okay! I look at this way: with tacos, you have Maize, and you have Taco Bell and everything in between. It’s all about where you find the best. So for some, you might have to get your tacos from Fernando’s or Maize, and you don’t even consider Taco Bell.
I think regarding pizza, we all love the pizza we grew up on. We aim to instill that same feeling with Antica. We’re ridiculously family-friendly, so offering families real pizza helps create those foundations that become generational. We want to be the pizza Champaign-Urbana kids grow up with. We regularly offer school field trips where kids can learn what goes into a pizza, and we let them make their own pizzas. It’s a lot of fun.
Photo by Pizzeria Antica.
SP: Restaurant operations are obviously different these days, but pizza is definitely essential. What adjustments have you been making to compensate for the change?
Karimpour: We are first and foremost, a sit down restaurant. We didn’t do carryout when we opened. Neapolitan pizzerias struggle with carryout because once you put a hand-baked pizza with fresh cheese and no emulsifiers in a cardboard box, it starts steaming, and it mars the quality of our pizza. Our pizzas come straight from the oven and are meant to be eaten as soon as possible.
So offering carryout was our first big change. Here at Pizzeria Antica what we want to offer our guests is an experience of eating pizza in Naples, Italy. With carryout that doesn’t happen. Now with COVID-19, we are adding delivery. Maybe after this crisis, Antica will have a little Fiat all decked out and use reliable, friendly drivers to show our love of craft pizza delivery. Sadly now, we’re on DoorDash for delivery, but it has allowed us to keep a couple employees.
SP: Are your menu offerings the same? Hours?
Our hours have been adjusted to Monday to Thursday from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. We are closed on Sundays.
SP: How have staffing needs changed since altering your operations?
Karimpour: We have kept all our talented pizzaiolos. With making craft pizza, if you don’t keep using that skill and practicing, you lose it somewhat, so I’m thankful we’ve been able to keep them here. What I worry about most is our servers. I wish there was a way to help them more.
SP: Have these times affected your leadership approach as a restaurant owner?
Karimpour: We love our customers more than their money. The hardest adjustment is that we have an empty restaurant. We miss talking and joking with our customers and making friends. It’s been hard not to be social and not make those connections.
SP: Have you found that obtaining some items and ingredients is more difficult now?
Karimpour: Not at all. Aside from local produce, sausage, and cheese, all of our ingredients come directly from Naples. It’s where we get our flour, and there are no substitutes for Caputo flour when making Neapolitan pizza. Our supply chain has been totally fine.
With specially ingredients, shortages can occur at any time. Like when we need local lamb, we might not be able to find any because of Ramadan because it’s all been bought up. That kind of supply irregularities are normal, and our customers are used to it.
Photo by Anna Longworth.
SP: Have you set any new goals or realized that you want to make any changes for when things return to “normal”?
Karimpour: We’re building a bar! Along with our usual Italian beer and wine offerings, we will be adding cocktails and local beers. It’d be nice to have selections from Triptych and Riggs because fresh pizza and fresh beer just seems like a good match.
SP: What measures have you made to help customers practice social distancing?
Karimpour: We have a designated zone for pickup, and when we open back up, we will offer an expanded patio and dispersed seating.
SP: Should customers order online or over the phone? Cash or credit?
Karimpour: If you order takeout, Antica gets 100% of that money. You can order carryout online or by phone. We can take your credit card information through either as well.
SP: What else would you like to share with the readers?
Karimpour: This current crisis won’t affect Pizzeria Antica. We’re actually not taking any loans amidst all this, so that we can reopen without debt. We’re not going anywhere, Champaign.
10 E Chester St
M-Th 4 p.m to 8 p.m.
F + S 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.