Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Passione e Fantasia in the Windy City

Passione e fantasia! Sounds like a Felini movie. But when pizza entrepreneur and dough magician Gino Rago, owner of Panino’s and Via Pizzeria 1-2-3 in Chicago, pronounces the words in his native tongue, it’s clear he’s melodically accenting a committed way of life.  I met Gino and his lovely wife, Tina, for the first time last week and I’m not exaggerating or blowing smoke up my new paisan’s posterior when I say I was inspired by the interaction.

I’ve got an in-depth cover story for PMQ Pizza Magazine in the works on Gino, so I’ll paint the macro view of this quintessential pizza quality advocate. What’s the source of his inspiration—that he passes on so generously to everyone he meets? Maybe you guessed—he’s Italian. Gino was born in Chicago, but moved to Italy with his parents at 6-months-old. As a kindergartner, he donned the oversized blue bowtie-blaring suit that surely mortified the always snappy-dressing Mr. Rago even then.

Now being Italian, in itself, doesn’t make you a great guy—or even a great pizza chef. Al Capone couldn’t spin dough worth beans, I’m told. Gino Rago, on the other hand, learned to love Italian cuisine and respect hard, honest labor as a wide-eyed little boy in the Old Country. Although he and his family returned to Chicago after Gino finished Kindergarten, they returned to the Old Country every summer until Gino was 12. The high-energy youngster fell in love with passionately prepared Italian cooking made with fresh, homegrown ingredients. Wonderful stuff—including classic Neapolitan pizza at its most rustic, healthy and delicious.

Back in the states, Gino’s dad, who was friendly with many local restaurant owners, routinely dropped the eager teen off at restaurants and pizzerias to learn the business. In innumerable hectic kitchens winding around the Windy City, Gino soaked in pizza knowledge from the tomato sauce-stained ground up.

“I love pizza, I dream about pizza,” Gino says without a trace of irony. He tried electronics trade school—but admits it didn’t connect. Then, on a trip to Naples as a young restaurant owner, a crusty Italian pizzaiolo granted Gino the gift of Italian dough magic. Called Lieveto Madre, Mother Yeast, it’s a gift that had kept on giving for about 200 years before Gino took possession. It remains today fungus gold—the starter yeast for some of the most deliciously airy, slightly tart dough that ever crossed the Atlantic. Gino uses this ancient, little piece of Italy in the rising array of pizzas, breads and appetizers that he and his restaurant partners—brother Lenny and cousin Bruno—serve up at their three locations. Panino’s and Via Pizzeria 1-2-3 daily accomplish the unheard-of feat of treating devoted patrons to Chicago Deep Dish, East Coast Thin Crust, award-winning Neapolitan and Grandma-style pizza favorites.

Passione and fantasia, Gino understands, are values not exclusively found in a Naples brick pizza oven. The aspiring pizza craftsman discovered his passion for dough making in the pages of PMQ Pizza Magazine. Today, Gino routinely wins pizza-making competitions. A decade ago, he devoured the world’s leading pizzeria trade pub regularly while paying his pizza chef dues. If PMQ’s resident dough doctor Tom Lehmann is the master instructor of the fine art and exacting science of doughology, Gino is his proud protégé. “Great dough is the foundation of great pizza and reading Tom’s articles in PMQ were a Godsend to me when I was trying to perfect my own recipes,” Gino says. “Now I’m privileged to call him a friend and I’m still learning from him today.”

Internalizing fresh insights about his craft is the lifeblood of this culinary athlete. To observe him is to enjoy commitment in motion. Gino witnesses to his passion while he’s launching new products, like his lines of pizza and barbecue sauces, when he returns to Italy to compete for the Groupon U.S. Pizza Team, while he makes his latest restaurant menu add-on in his own pizza oven-rigged garage, or just because he makes time for his close-knit family. Gino keeps growing—just like his Mother Yeast. “For Italians, food IS life and family,” he says with a winning smile. It’s the life he was born to live.  


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