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Thursday, Sept. 14, 2006 02:32 pm

Gooey, messy, and gorgeous

People come to Gallina’s for Vito Randazzo’s food

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OK, I’ll admit that 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 29 years ago 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 beer posters and pictures and plaques that attest to the owner’s Italian origin and his passion for soccer.

It doesn’t matter. Nobody comes to Gallina’s Pizza in the Capital City Shopping Center for the décor. They come for Vito 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 more than 20 years.

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 inch-thick deep-dish pizza that originated in Chicago. I think of the style as New York pizza and was sure that 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”

As good as the pizza is, my favorite thing at Gallina’s — what I really get a craving for — are the parmigiana sandwiches, which are exceptional.

They begin with the bread. Randazzo uses his own house-made dough for both the pizza and the rolls for the sandwiches (as well as the garlic bread). The rolls are made as they are 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.

The parmigiana sandwiches are 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.

The sandwiches are substantial, too. One is enough for a filling meal. Two people having salads 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.

On some of my visits Randazzo is alone behind the counter. Short, wiry, and muscular, with a mop of graying curls, he 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. The empty pans are placed on a high, wavering stack to be washed (a leaning tower of pizza pans). Pizzas are placed in delivery boxes and stuffed into pouches, after which directions are given to the driver. Sometimes Randazzo talks longingly of retiring. He turns 50 this week, and 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 really miss those sandwiches. Happy Birthday, Vito.

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

Send questions and comments to Julianne Glatz at realcuisine@insightbb.com.

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