Paella Rustico/photo: David Hammond

“Nine hundred degrees,” said Chef Gabriel Padilla of Rustico, with pride. “That’s the temperature of our wood-burning oven, where we make our paella.”

Paella is a traditional Spanish dish, usually served in a flat round pan, with rice as a key ingredient, as well as, according to Padilla, “Saffron, paprika and broth (depending on the paella).”

There are an infinite number of possible paellas, and paella has become a local dish throughout the Spanish-speaking world and beyond, varying based on what’s available locally.

Late last year, I judged a paella contest at Mercat a la Planxa in the Loop; no two were alike. The winner was Chef Marcos Campos of Black Bull, who prepared a beautifully simple paella of rice tinted and flavored with squid ink and featuring a half dozen or so huge Spanish shrimp. This was a paella satisfyingly stripped down to essentials, as elegant as it was delicious.

“The perfect Paella,” says Campos, “has to be made with just one main protein (either meat or fish/seafood) because you don’t want to mix two different flavors. If you’re making a fish and seafood paella, it can’t be distracted with other meat flavors.”

This one-protein approach to paella is also practiced at Artango  in Lincoln Square, where on Fridays you can also see professional tango performed (it’s wild, beautiful, and very athletic). Artango is Argentinian, and paella has become a local dish throughout the Spanish-speaking world and beyond, varying based on what’s available locally.

When we make paella at home (I request it every year for birthdays), we put meat right alongside seafood. That’s just what Padilla does with the paella Rustico, which contains chicken, pork, chorizo, shrimp, mussels, clam, and cod, along with red peppers and onion. Every bite is a surprise because you never know what combination of flavors you’re going to get.  I like that.

When I asked Padilla to describe the perfect paella, he said, “If your rice is cooked correctly, it’s guaranteed you will have a perfect paella.”

At Rustico, the rice is the only thing that is slightly precooked. “We used to cook the rice in the pan, but it took forty minutes to make,” says Padilla, “Customers didn’t want to wait for that. So we cook it just a little ahead of time.”

When rice is not cooked from start to finish in the pan, it sometimes doesn’t develop socarrat, which Campos describes as “the crispy layer of rice you can find in the bottom of the pan.” Although paella enthusiasts treasure the textural variation provided by burned-on rice at the bottom of the pan, those new to the dish might consider it a defect and, worst case scenario, send back their paella and ask that it be cooked “properly.”

At Rustico, cooking the paella in a wood-burning fire creates a slight browning on the top layer of rice, so there are, indeed, variations in texture. The wood fire also gives Rustico’s paella a pleasantly smoky note. The rice is cooked perfectly, each grain distinct and tender.

National Paella Day is March 2, and in Oak Park, you can celebrate by eating one of Rustico’s three different paellas (chicken, seafood or Rustico, pictured). Paellas are on the dinner menu, but they’ll make you one at lunchtime – just ask. We split the Paella Rustico, which is easily enough for two. I asked Padilla if anyone who orders the paella ever eats the whole thing. “Oh, yeah” he confirmed, though his eyes seemed to say “Unbelievable, right?!”

I can believe it. Rustico makes a very good paella.

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David Hammond

David Hammond, a corporate communications consultant and food journalist living in Oak Park, Illinois, is a founder and moderator of, the 8,500 member Chicago-based culinary chat site. David...