In the Triangle, virtually every strip-mall pizza joint touts its authentic New York-style pies, while a restaurant specializing in Chicago-style pizza is as rare as a Cubs pennant. So when Rosati's opened last year, its tag line - "Authentic Chicago Pizza" - was music to the ears of fans of the genre.
Make that genres, plural. To many Americans, "Chicago style" is synonymous with deep-dish pizza. But to Chicagoans, the term conjures up a different image: a crust that is thinner and crisper than New York style, with toppings applied more generously than true Italian style. Rosati's satisfies on both counts.
With a buttery crust rising to nearly 3 inches at the edge to contain a massive quantity of toppings, molten mozzarella and chunky tomato sauce, Rosati's deep-dish pizzas hold their own against famous Windy City originals Gino's, Lou Malnati's and Pizzeria Uno (not to be confused with its chain spinoff, Uno Chicago Grill).
Granted, Rosati's is also a chain. But it's hardly your typical corporate-driven operation. Most locations are in Illinois, where Sam Rosati opened the prototype in 1927 in downtown Chicago, and the Rosati family still owns many of the restaurants. Evanston transplants Jim and Judy Tackett were longtime customers before moving South and opening the first East Coast location in Morrisville. Jim Tackett proudly points out that, unlike at the mass-produced chains, pretty much everything at Rosati's is made on the premises.
That includes the dough, which in the thin-crust pizza achieves the cracker-crisp ideal from edge to edge. Traditionalists can choose from two dozen toppings (Italian beef and hot giardiniera ought to bring a smile to the faces of homesick Chicagoans). Or try one of the specialty pizzas, such as the Siciliana: prosciutto, artichoke hearts and Kalamata olives, topped with a post-baking shower of fresh basil.
Rosati's also offers a pan pizza, as well as house-specialty "double dough" pizza that's a sort of compromise between the thin and deep-dish styles - though "compromise" is hardly the first word that comes to mind the first time you lay eyes on the Rosati's Monster, an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink pie that weighs in at about 5 pounds in the extra-large version.
Though pizzas are clearly the main draw, Rosati's is hardly a one-trick (or, if you count all the crust variations, a four-trick) pony. The kitchen turns out a selection of worthy pasta alternatives, from linguine with red or white clam sauce to lasagna made from the Rosati family recipe. Penne, tossed in olive oil with bright broccoli florets and, as the menu rightfully puts it, "lots of garlic," is a rewarding warm weather option.
Baby back ribs, glazed with a thick, tangy Midwestern-style sauce and served with creamy slaw and excellent shoestring fries, are another winning option. The ribs are baked, so they're not smoky. But they're satisfyingly meaty, and they avoid the common pitfall of overcooking to a falling-off-the-bone hash.
If you haven't loosened your belt a notch after gorging on pizza (in the case of the deep dish, two slices will suffice), you surely will after indulging in one of Rosati's homemade desserts. You won't go wrong with either the creamy cheesecake or the tiramisu, generously soaked with brandy, Marsala and espresso, and topped with crumbled chocolate biscotti for a surprising crunchy counterpoint.
The traditionally furnished dining room is a casual, warmly inviting space framed in landscape prints, faux Tiffany chandeliers and curtains in the windows. The room seats only 42, though (plus a few more on the sidewalk patio that's expected to open soon), and there's a good chance you might have to wait for a table during peak weekend hours.
Of course, you could always get takeout. According to Jim Tackett, all Rosati's restaurants were exclusively takeout and delivery operations until just a few years ago - which explains why the first thing you see when you walk in the door is a takeout counter.
Just be careful if you order the extra-large Rosati's Monster to go. Tackett says it's so heavy, first-timers have been known to nearly drop the box when he hands it to them.