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Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014 12:01 am

Making it from scratch

Dee and Vito Randazzo have owned Gallina’s in Capitol City Shopping Center for almost 30 years.


“The Art of Hand-Tossed Pizza! The All New Hand-Tossed Pizza! Pizza Will Never Be the Same!” –Slogans from a national pizza chain’s newest ad campaign

I thought of those slogans as I was sitting in Gallina’s Pizza in the Capitol City Shopping center watching owner Vito Randazzo behind the counter. I wrote about Gallina’s and Randazzo in one of my earliest columns here. I’m pleased to report that they’re both the same as they were eight years ago, although Randazzo’s mop of curls has grayed considerably.

Short, wiry and muscular, Randazzo is in constant motion, answering the phone, putting pizzas in the oven, taking them out, piling roast beef onto a tray, then ladling on sauce and cheese and sticking it in the oven; then, whoosh! – out come a couple of covered metal pans containing the rising dough. One pan’s dough is formed into a perfect circle in seconds for a pizza; the other, just as quickly, is cut into three pieces for the latest batch of rolls. Randazzo’s movements are all about speed and efficiency, not pizza-tossing as entertainment. The empty pans are placed on a high, wavering stack to be washed, a veritable leaning tower of pizza pans.

I chuckled, thinking, “Those ‘new’ national chain pizzas may be hand-tossed, whatever that may mean. But it’s a sure bet that they’re not being tossed by a master like Randazzo!”

I might have not known about Gallina’s if my husband, Peter, hadn’t opened his first office in the then-new shopping center. Gallina’s quickly became a favorite lunch spot. Though we haven’t eaten there quite as much since Peter moved his office to its present Sixth Street location years ago, Gallina’s remains a favorite.

I’ll admit the place won’t win any awards for décor. The glass storefront window doesn’t let in enough natural light to brighten up the narrow, deep space, and the dark paneling that’s been there since the place opened in 1968 doesn’t help, either. The chairs and the booths and tables with their checkered plastic tablecloths are purely functional. The wall decorations are a motley assortment of family pictures, beer posters and pictures and plaques attesting to the owner’s Italian origin and his passion for soccer.

It doesn’t matter. Nobody comes to Gallina’s for the décor. They come for Randazzo’s food.

Randazzo emigrated from Sicily to the United States as a teenager. He worked in relatives’ restaurants for a number of years in New York, New Jersey and West Virginia before moving to Springfield to take over ownership of Gallina’s. Randazzo’s sister and her husband, Tony Gallina, were moving back to Sicily. (Tony’s brother, Joe, an original partner in the business, opened his own establishment downtown.) So even though the name over the door is still Gallina, it’s been Randazzo’s restaurant for almost 30 years.

And, I should say, his wife, Dee’s. Dee hails from West Virginia; she and Vito married 36 years ago, the same year Gallina’s opened. Vito may do the cooking, but it’s Dee that keeps things running smoothly.

Randazzo makes a fine pizza. The crust, with its wide, puffy rim, is somewhere in between the wafer-thin type most commonly found in the Springfield area and the inches-thick deep-dish pizza that originated in Chicago. I think of Gallina’s as New York-style pizza and was sure Randazzo would argue about that with me, but he actually said it himself: “It’s like New York pizza – and New York pizza is closest to what you find in Sicily and Naples, where pizza was created.”

I have to say, though, that I’m not enthused about the sausage Randazzo usually uses on the pizza. It’s shredded/crumbled so finely that it hardly makes its presence known. But that’s no problem. I ask Randazzo to use instead slices of the excellent Italian sausage or meatballs that he uses in his sandwiches. Another tip: If you’re getting carryout or delivery pizza, ask to have it half-baked, then finish baking it at home. This is pizza that should be eaten just as it comes from the oven.

Delicious as the pizza is, my favorite thing at Gallina’s – what I get actual cravings for – are Randazzo’s exceptional parmigiana sandwiches.

They begin with the bread. Randazzo makes his own house-made dough for both the pizza and the sandwich roll, as well as the garlic bread. The rolls are made as needed throughout the day, a few at a time, so they are always just-out-of-the-oven fresh. Randazzo puts the filling for a sandwich on a metal tray, then pours a ladle of his tomato sauce over it. Once a covering of grated mozzarella has been applied, the tray goes into the pizza oven to bake until everything is heated through and the cheese is melted. The filling is stuffed to overflowing into the just-sliced roll.

Though I try to decide which sandwich I’ll have before going up to the counter, I usually find myself questioning my decision once I’m staring at the menu board: I thought I wanted the roast beef, but the sausage with peppers is so good, too . . . and so is the meatball . . . and the eggplant. Dithering until I’m sure I look foolish, eventually my choice is made. At least I know I can’t lose: They’re all wonderful.

They’re also an absolute mess to eat, down to the last finger-licking bite. I strongly recommend tucking a napkin or two into your shirt before eating one. If you think that might be embarrassing, consider which is worse: a napkin in your shirt while eating or tomato sauce stains down your front for the rest of the day. A knife and fork can be a good idea, too.

The sandwiches are substantial. One is enough for a filling meal. Two people having salads or sharing a salad-based antipasto could easily split one.

Gallina’s Pizza has a basic pizzeria/red-sauce-joint menu, nothing fancy or out of the ordinary. The wide choice of pizza toppings includes traditional ingredients plus American innovations that no true Italian would be caught dead putting on his pizza: pineapple, hamburger, jalapeño peppers, Canadian bacon.

What sets Gallina’s apart is the care of preparation. “I don’t like all that premade stuff,” Randazzo says. “I like to make it myself – simple homemade food.” It shows: in his preparation of fresh dough throughout the day; in the flavorful, not-overly-sweet tomato sauce; in the tender meatballs prepared in true Italian style, plump with breadcrumbs; in the beef, roasted, spiced and sliced by hand.

It’s not unusual to find Randazzo is alone behind the counter, though if Dee isn’t there, she’s probably busy somewhere else in the restaurant.

Sometimes Randazzo talks longingly of retiring. The restaurant business is a tough one. The work is physically demanding and the hours are long. “But not just yet,” he says. “I’ll be here for quite a while.”

I’m glad. I’d miss Randazzo’s cheerful “Hey, Meesus Glatz, how you doin’?!” And I’d miss those pizzas and sandwiches. They don’t need new ad campaigns or catchy slogans or innovations. Some things are good enough that they should stay exactly as they’ve always been.

Gallina’s Pizza, Capital City Shopping Center, 3133 S. Dirksen Pkwy., 217-529-0649.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

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