The Romans call it “scrocchiarella” (translation: crispy), but the legendary cake has more than just a characteristic texture.
I was ten years old when I tried pizza for the first time. My family had moved to Rome in the middle of the school year, and my brother and I were sent to a fancy private school, presumably run by Irish nuns, near the Piazza di Spagna in the city’s centro storico (historic centre). It was an abrupt introduction to Italian bourgeois culture, including the Italian pizza ritual. Each morning, as we walked into class, we passed the school administrator selling neatly wrapped packets of Pizza Rossa and Pizza Bianca. In the classroom, we shoved our paper-wrapped snack between the pedestals of the radiator to keep it warm until our morning break. I’m not sure anything has ever tasted this delicious since.
Pizza Bianca was a little basic, just plain dough and olive oil, so I always went for Pizza Rossa – yeasty, salty and tangy with delicious Italian canned tomatoes (there weren’t any popular brands back then). no cheese Just the concentrated cooked tomatoes, salt and some tangy dried oregano. At the break, the pizza was slightly soft and completely warm due to the rich tomato topping. Folded together, tomato side to tomato side, the outer crust lightly toasted by the heater, it was a perfect contrast of soft and crunchy.
I quickly discovered that this style of pizza was available at neighborhood bakeries across Rome and displayed freshly baked in 1.5 meter slices. Cut to any size desired and wrapped in paper, it made a perfect pick-me-up — not unlike the New York City slice or the Jamaican patty. To this day, it’s one of my favorite Roman snacks and one of the few things Italians don’t frown upon when eaten on the street.
In 1975(!) pizza wasn’t as ubiquitous in Italy as it is today or in the United States. Of course, Naples was known for its historic pizza, but nobody went to this crime-ridden city willingly. Rome had its own styles of pizza: pizza rossa and bianca, of course, but also pizza al taglio, which was sold in certain shops with a thicker dough, baked in a heavy sheet pan and topped with various ingredients like eggplant, mushrooms, and the incredibly delicious potato was and rosemary, eaten in slices and consumed standing.
There were also real pizzerias, at least according to our modern understanding – places that were only open for dinner and where you specifically bought the 12-inch round cakes that were quickly baked in scorching hot wood-fired ovens. They were cheap places with paper tablecloths, cheap red and white wine, and bad beer, and they worked faster and harder than any other Italian restaurant.
As teenagers, my friends and I used to visit for simple, quick food. One of the most famous was just around the corner from where my family lived. It’s called Pizzeria Da Baffetto because of the owner’s lush mustache. It was very popular and it took courage to stand in the lines of people waiting to get in, but as soon as we were introduced, Baffetto himself pulled us in and sat us in front of the grumbling non-regulars for us to eat our pizza could.
All of these pizzerias had similar menus: simple appetizers like plain or tomato bruschetta, or my favorite, melted mozzarella and anchovies. Pizza choices ranged from a simple tomato, olive oil and dried oregano marinara to ‘Capricciosa’ with pickled artichokes, olives, anchovies, ham and a raw egg to bake in the oven, although you could order whatever combination you like have imagined. My preference was simple – tomato sauce and mozzarella with fried chopped onions and fresh rughetta (arugula) sprinkled on top when it came out of the hot oven.
Roman pizza has a lot in common with the more famous Neapolitan pizza. But it has a flatter, crunchier base that’s rolled out with a rolling pin rather than stretched by hand, giving it what the Romans call “scrocchiarella” (crisp). It is meant to be eaten with a knife and fork, but it is also permissible to pick up a piece with your hands. Neapolitan pizza, on the other hand, is known for its lighter, more tender, and stretchy dough, made and shaped by hand from highly refined 0 or 00 starch flour. In addition, it usually has a cornicione, a thickened rim that prevents the sauce from dripping onto the oven floor. Both styles originally emerged as quick, cheap food—dough was quick to make and use, ingredients typically local and inexpensive.
But both are currently enjoying a resurgence around the world as Pizza Ripesata, as smart pizzaioli play with quality ingredients, long leavening of doughs made from quality flours, and novel combinations. Some even make sweet dessert pizzas with cinnamon cream, apples and pine nuts – which might sound strange but can be very, very good.
“Where and when does Roman pizza start?” I asked the chef/owner of Trapizzino Stefano Callegari, known in Rome and New York alike for his overflowing trapizzino sandwiches, although he actually started his career as a maker of elaborate, respected Neapolitan-style pizza in Rome.
With cool Italian conviction, Stefano explained that the ancient Romans served their meals on thin cracker bread instead of plates. Once the patricians had finished eating, the soggy leftovers were fed to slaves. That seemed like a pretty wild assumption to me. When I gave him a wry look, Stefano continued to admit what I’d always thought: Roman pizza began in the post-war years, when Italy was recovering emotionally and economically from its devastating war and fascism. But what happened in the modern pizza scene? On a recent visit to Rome this winter, I decided to test the floor myself.
I started again at Pizzeria Da Baffetto on Via del Governo Vecchio near Piazza Navona, which is not on any modern list of the best pizzerias. In the jetlag haze, I ordered my old favorite and, to be honest, it was as good as I remembered: the onions were sweet and the Roman rughetta, aggressively hot, hadn’t lost any of its bite.
But as I neared the end and the pizza cooled, it flattened a bit, probably because the ingredients were industrial and cheap, and I was horrified to watch as a waiter brought a bruschetta al pomodoro to a nearby table. It consisted of bread with thick slices of unadorned, pale, unripe tomatoes. Roman-style bruschetta al pomodoro should consist of finely chopped tomatoes marinated in olive oil, salt and garlic and soaked in grilled or toasted bread.
Would the modern pizza ripensata be any better? Pizza has always been about quick, cheap food that has never been about sophisticated technology or expensive ingredients. But I would try. I went 180g (named for the weight of the dough in each pizza), which appears on almost every list of top-rated pizzerias. It’s a bright, busy place in a desolate area outside of the city center. Despite this, it was almost impossible to get a reservation. 180g improves on the classic Roman pizza formula with special attention to technique (long fermentation resulting in better flavor and texture) and ingredients.
Because this place is so incredibly modern, I broke my rule and ordered a modern pizza combo: thinly sliced amberjack (a fish not unlike tuna), bitter roman vegetables, and grape jelly. It was good although I felt the fish topped the rest of the ingredients. I think I like the idea of an innovative pizza better in theory than in practice. I eyed my kid’s much better margherita and vowed to only order pizza margherita for myself from now on. I loved what they did with 180g, admired their spirit and applauded their apparent success. But I wasn’t convinced that their pizza was any better than the old standards, and I couldn’t detect much more flavor in the long-fermented dough made from high-quality flour.
“What’s the best Roman pizza?” I asked everyone. From Stefano to my very Roman taxi driver, they all said: Pizzeria A Rota. So on my last night I went there with my childhood best friend, Chiara, who still lives in the Casaletti Mattei neighborhood in the apartment where she grew up. We’ve eaten a lot of pizza together over the years, although we’re now getting old to get into the same troubles we did as kids.
Like 180g, A Rota is far from the city center but its location is charming, surrounded by old-fashioned small apartment buildings in a neighborhood where the cool, budget-friendly artists have moved from the centre. The plain and unadorned pizzeria is owned by Sami El Sabawy, who was born in Rome to an Egyptian immigrant and runs his own old-fashioned pizzeria. Sami does just the right thing for modern cooking: long, slow proofing of the dough, mixing by hand, rolling out with a rolling pin, and while there are a slightly innovative pizza or two on the menu, the focus really is on preparing the classics well .
This time I didn’t deviate from those classics. I ordered the margherita with mozzarella and tomatoes when I actually wanted Chiara’s pizza, a margherita with anchovies. The starters were classic Roman fritti Cheese Rice Balls Made with tomato rice wrapped around melty mozzarella that falls apart when broken open.
There was also a memorable Mozzarella in Carrozza – mozzarella sandwiched between two slices of bread, dipped in egg and breadcrumbs and then deep fried. And the pizza was absolutely perfect, the crust crispy and flat but with so much flavor that even when I got to the end of cooling I was still wanting more because of the really good taste and the use of high quality ingredients made the flavors last longer.
When I spoke to Sami while he was standing in the shop’s kitchen, he confirmed what I thought and what Stefano had told me: that Pizza Romana dates from post-war Rome. It was prepared quickly because it was supposed to be simple and cheap. The dough was mixed in the afternoon and shaped for evening service. What interested Sami most, he told me, was sticking to the Roman tradition but improving the technique, with great flour and long fermentation, overnight proofing and the best mozzarella, olive oil and tomatoes To procure ingredients that give it commercialized can be disconcerting, but also critical to success. He’s not that interested in wildly creative combinations and reinventing the wheel. He just wants to make great pizza, he says, as part of pizza’s long history.
And while I tried a slice of Chiara’s pizza with anchovies, I was glad I stuck with it because there really is only one pizza, and “Margherita” is her name.