When in Rome By Joe Brancatelli
No. 5: Pizza! Red, White, Round and Square
Good news and bad news about pizza in Rome.
The good news: There is no bad pizza in Rome.
The bad news: There's never enough time to eat all the good pizza.
The only rule: Italians are loathe to serve round pizza by the slice and most prefer it as a dinner item rather than a snack food.
But here's where it gets really tricky. Pizza in Rome is a fungible thing. It comes in round and square. In white and red varieties. And while there may be few rules, there are lots and lots and lots of variables to remember.
Let's start on unfamiliar ground, what Romans call pizza rossa and pizza bianca.
Pizza bianca is not, in fact, pizza as Americans know it. It's a rectangular, flattish bread dusted with salt, drizzled with oil and often dusted with a little rosemary. That's it. Totally elemental.
Pizza bianca is the snack of choice in Rome. Every bakery makes it and cuts hunks to your specifications. (Just hold your hands apart to tell the salesperson how much you want.) The hunk will then be hacked in half, wrapped in a waxy paper and handed over. Enjoy. It's unbelievably simple and good. The warmer the better, by the way.
Two places reign supreme in this market and they're close enough that you can walk between them and compare. (In fact, foodies shamelessly do it all the time.) Forno Campo de'Fiori sits in the Campo at the corner of the Vicolo del Gallo. Lines form early so it sells out early. A few streets behind the Campo on the Via dei Chiavari is Roscioli , the bakery owned by a family that also owns a trendy salumeria/restaurant, a coffee bar, a wine school and a trendy pizzeria to be named later. Its pizza bianca is slightly puffier and chewier than the Forno's.
Pizza rossa? Take that lovely, unique bread, flatten it a bit and add some stunningly good tomato-and-basil sauce. Not a lot. Just enough to coat the top of the bread. And watch how your server prepares your pizza rossa after you do the hands bit to select your portion. S/he will hack it in half and gently place the two pieces together, with the sauced side facing each other. The better to ensure nothing is lost.
Where does one go for great pizza rossa? Both Roscioli and the Forno do wonderful versions. But for my money--and I've given them plenty--it's Antico Forno Urbani in the Roman Ghetto. They make a round version of the pizza rossa that is thinner and slightly saucier than the others. It's what I think Rome tastes like and it's my breakfast of choice when I am in town. And, yes, I dream about it. More than anyone should dream about a food. You can find Antico Forno Urbani at 30/31 Piazza Costaguti, just a few steps off the Via di S. Maria del Pianto, the ghetto's main drag.
Now that we have put bread and sauce together, let's talk about the pizza you came to Rome to eat. First, be aware, round Roman pizza (pizza rotundo) is thinner and crisper than the Neapolitan-style pizza you know or think is the Italian standard. Romans generally disdain Neapolitan pizza because they find it soggy.
For the Roman-style leader, head to Via del Governo Vecchio behind the Piazza Navona. There you'll find Da Baffetto. It's open for dinner only, starting at 6:30 p.m. and running to midnight. The lines are always long, sometimes snaking down the block, and don't come expecting anything other than great pizza rotundo. You may also have to share a table with other parties. If you can't get in, walk a few feet to La Montecarlo. This place does both lunch and dinner and offers extremely low prices. It also sells lots of beer in steins to visiting Germans--and Japanese visitors who clearly haven't been told this is Rome, not Munich.
(By the way, there is an offshoot of Bafetto at the edge of the Campo de'Fiori called, logically enough, Baffetto 2. I've passed by it for years and never gone inside, but my friend Erica Firpo swears by its pizza. That's good enough for me. Here's what she says about Baffetto 2.)
You should know that pizza rotundo in Rome is changing fast and younger foodies eschew these joints. They prefer Emma, another effort from the Roscioli family. It's located in a place that was once a beer hall and once a Calabrian restaurant. Emma is new-wave Roman dining and fabulous with fresh flavors and top-notch ingredients.
Meanwhile, pizza by the slice does exist in Rome, but it is called pizza al taglio and we recognize it as a thinish, Sicilian-style pie. And it's not sliced so much as hacked. You go into the shop, point to the kind you want--there are usually six or seven on offer, with various toppings--then either order an amount by weight or just hold your hands apart to represent the size. The pizzaiola will cut the serving and give it a quick heat in the oven. Then they will fold it, topping sides together, and give it to you to eat. The best pizza al taglio places tend not to have many seats, so be prepared to a portare via (literally take on the street).
One of my favorite pizza al taglio places in the heart of town is Pizzeria Florida at the back of the Largo Argentina. It prepares classic pies with classic toppings and also makes good suppli, the Roman version of rice balls known elsewhere in Italy as arancini. Dirt cheap, too. Best of all: You'd never eat here unless you were directed to it. Although I am not necessarily mad about it, the pizza al taglio at the aforementioned Roscioli bakery is also much admired.
If you want state of the art Roman pizza al taglio, however, head outside the city center. Pizzerarium is the brainchild of Gabriele Bonci, a tattooed bear of a man and the city's most famous pizzaiola. It's located in the Monti district. Lines are insanely long, stacked with locals and food-obsessed tourists, so be prepared for a wait. But the payoff is creative, constantly changing toppings, the freshest ingredients and top-notch crusts. If you want a different Bonci experience, head to the newish Mercato Centrale food hall on the Via Giolitti side of Termini, Rome's primary train station. His shop there has pastry, breads and, of course, his unique take on pizza.
Addendum: May I direct your attention to the Rome episode of Vice Network's The Pizza Show? While I do not agree with every choice or every comment, it is a true-to-life representation of the changing culture in what host Frank Pinello astutely calls the most exciting pizza city in the world. (4-1-18)
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