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Episode #231: Roman Pizza – What to try and where to taste

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When it comes to pizza in Italy, there are two cities who could be deemed rivals in the competition for the best pizzas. Both the Roman and Neapolitan-style pizzas are delicious but quite different, and each with its own history of evolution.

Roman pizza, with its thin and crispy crust, stands in delightful contrast to the soft, chewy, and charred dough of Naples pizza. Roman pizza can be enjoyed in its most traditional form as well as with ever-evolving and creative toppings. We take you on a mouthwatering journey digging deep into the world of pizza in Rome.

Show notes
In this episode, we welcome once more our favorite food tour guide, chef and food enthusiast Nesim Bekalti of Full Belly Tours to discuss Roman pizza. Nesim grew up in the Testaccio, the kitchen of Rome, and has returned to his old neighborhood, having lived and worked all over the world as a chef. He loves nothing more than sharing the best of Roman food and drink and especially Testaccio treasures, in his legendary Testaccio food tours. Nesim is a very popular guest on the podcast with previous episodes on Roman pasta (part 1 and part 2), finding the best restaurants in Rome and Eating out in Italy. Nesim shares the ins and outs of Roman pizza, how it differs from Neapolitan pizza as well as the history of pizza in Rome and it’s exciting, creative evolution.

Meet Nesim…

What you’ll learn in this episode

  1. Nesim runs Full Belly Tours and gives food tours in the neighborhood he grew up in, the Testaccio neighborhood of Rome, known as the birthplace of traditional Roman cuisine. Having worked all around the world as a chef, he returned to Rome a few years ago and loves to show people around his neighborhood and feeds them lots of traditional and delicious Roman dishes, with a side dish of history
  2. People outside of Italy tend to think of pizza as ‘Italian food’, but the phrase ‘Italian food’ is actually a misnomer, because like any other country, food is very regional, and it is actually hyper-local in Italy because up until about 150 years ago it was just a bunch of independent city states. These states were often at war with each other so didn’t necessarily trade, especially food
  3. This means that every 10 or 15 kilometers, you will find different pasta shapes, cheeses, cured meats, etc
  4. The only two major cities in Italy that are known for pizza, are actually Naples and Rome

Naples pizza

  • Naples is where pizza originated and it is a very popular place for people to visit to try the pizza
  • They have two main styles – those cooked in a wood-fired oven and a deep-fried version of pizza called pizza montanara
  • The Naples pizza dough tends to be fluffier, chewier, with a characteristic puffy crust
  • This oven baked crust is called the cornicione – like the cornice of a building that, sticking out to give a little cover from the elements
  • It is usually wetter than the Roman kind because they tend to use more tomato and fresh mozzarella, which releases moisture when cooked
  • It’s not uncommon to see Neapolitans eat pizza with a knife and fork, whilst in Rome they get a knife and fork but just to cut your own pizza up – you would then eat it with your hands

Rome pizza

  • The Roman style of pizza is traditionally thin and crispy
  • Many styles have evolved over time but there are a few main categories which are:

Pizza alla pala

  • Pizza alla pala means pizza by the pale. This refers to the wooden implement used to take the bread in and out of an oven
  • This is the first iteration of Roman pizza, and it’s the pizza that you find in our bakeries forni that focus on breads or panifici where you’ll find drier sweets like cookies, pies, etc

Pizza tonda romana

  • Pizza tonda romana is the round Roman pizza that is traditionally cooked in a wood-fired oven and is very, very thin compared to the puffy or Neapolitan kind

Pizza al taglio

  • Means pizza by the cut, pizza al taglio is an offshoot of pizza alla pala. This is one of the fast food kinds of pizza – where you buy the pizza made
  • Each one has a price by weight. You tell them how much of it you want and they cut off just that piece, weigh it, and charge you for that amount

Pizzette

  • Nesim considers pizette a fourth category of pizza, although stemming from the bakery made pizza alla pala
  • Pizzette literally translates to small pizzas. Nesim thinks of them as a breakfast/ snacking pizza
  • The pizette have different names depending on what dough they’re made out of and their shape

Honorary mention – trapizzino

  • We could put trapizzino in this pizza category, though Nesim thinks the iconic Italian pizza pockets is kind of a unique food of its own
  •  It derives from the more modern pizza al taglio, where they bake the dough off into squares and cut them diagonally. Then they open them up and use them almost like a pizza pockets, filling then with a variety of traditional Roman stews
  • The dough proves for a very long time, often up to 100 hours, so over four days and the resulting dough is super light and fluffy with a crispy crust around it
  • Definitely something we suggest that you should seek out while you’re in Rome and you can actually find Trapizzino (the store) in a few other places – Milan, Florence and even New York City
  • Katy recommends Trapizzino for a quick dinner. She is a big fan of the eggplant (melanzane) parmigiana

A brief history of pizza in Rome

  • A lot of people assume that Italians have been eating pizza for centuries, but pizza, as we know it today, is actually a much more recent evolution
  • The history of Neapolitan pizza, where pizza first materialized can be found in our Pizza from Naples episode
  • In Rome, the first pizzeria opened in 1905, or more succinctly, the restaurant had opened in the late 1800s, but in 1905 they started making pizza
  • This was actually around the same time that the first pizzeria opened in the US
  • In Rome, however, pizza didn’t go down so well. They were already used to the pizza alla pala that you would find in bakeries, which tend to be made with a dough similar to bread dough, so lower in hydration than the Neapolitan kind
  • It also tended to be cooked at a lower temperature for longer, which made it chewier. The Neapolitan pizza was fluffier and lighter, so it didn’t go over well texturally with the Romans
  • It was only after World War II, in the late ’40s and early ’50s, that pizza started to take off
  • Pizzerias started to open that made the pizza tonda romana, made in a wood-fired oven (the thinnest type you’ll find in Rome)
  • Then only in the ’60s did the pizza al taglio, probably the most emblematic pizza you’ll find in Rome, appeared
  • It was then only in the early 2000s that there was a revolution in pizza al taglio
  • , where the focus became on digestibility and they started experimenting with longer proofing times, to create a much lighter, puffier dough

The history of pizza alla pala

  • Pizza alla pala, made in the local bakeries, was the first iteration of pizza that you can find in Rome
  • Pizza bianca (white pizza) is the Roman focaccia – the base dough used for all of these pizzas can trace its roots back to ancient Roman times
  • They would take a piece of bread dough, flatten it, and cook it on the stone of the oven itself
  • The name focaccia comes from ancient Rome, where they would cook a mixture of flour, olive oil, spices, and honey on a hot stone. This was called ‘panis focacius’, in Latin ‘panis’ is bread, and ‘focacius’ meant the hearth where things were cooked
  • Pizza alla pala tends to be chewier and crunchier but you have to understand there is a difference between crunchy and crispy. Crispy, is things that lightly shatter when you bite into them – like tempura. Crunchy, however, is a bit harder, things more like granola or biscotti
  • This kind of bakery pizza started out making just pizza bianca or pizza rossa. Pizza rossa means ‘red pizza’ and is the same dough as bianca, then simply dressed with good quality canned tomatoes, salt, and extra virgin olive oil
  • Back in the day, bakeries would even give change, rather than in coins, with pizza bianca or pizza rossa – rounding out their profits
  • A fun thing about being a kid in Italy and going shopping with your parents is that because Italians love children, you’re constantly being given little treats by the people serving your parents. Pizza bianca and pizza rossa are two of the most popular treats that you get
  • This original style of bakery pizza gave birth to what Nesim thinks of its own category of pizza, pizzette, literally meaning ‘small pizzas’

Grab a great pizza alla pala in Rome

  • The most famous restaurant which still has great quality goods is Roscioli. The family has a little food empire in the center of Rome, near Campo di Fiori which is ideal as it can be pretty tricky to find good food when you’re in the center of Rome
  • Roscioli have the restaurant which Katy loves and they also have their bakery, Forno Roscioli
  • There is also one of the most historic bakeries in the center, simply called Forno Campo de’Fiori, where you can find both the very traditional versions, as well as some more creative and crazy offerings
  • One of the most fun things about both pizza alla pala and pizza al taglio (Rome’s fast food) is that you have an infinite possibility of pizzas because of the different toppings you can find. Some places like to get very creative
  • Katy loves one of Roscioli’s more traditional, ones made simply with onion

Get pizza and make friends!

  • The traditional worker’s lunch in Rome is pizza bianca with mortadella. This is, slightly confusingly, called pizza e mortazza. Mortadella is a delicious meat that comes from Bologna. Mortazza was a local equivalent of Mortadella that they used to make locally, but nowadays since they can get the good stuff from Bologna, they use that – but still call it mortazza
  • So, if you want to order this like a local, ask for pizza e mortazza. If you do that you’ll get much better service because they don’t expect visitors to know the local lingo. If Italians see that you’re putting effort into learning about the culture, language, and especially the food, chances are you will win them over and have a friend for life

Pizette

  • Nesim considers pizette as a breakfast or snacking pizza. Often, bakeries make their own cornetti (Italian equivalent of croissants) and pizzette
  • It’s completely dependent on the baker’s personal preference which dough they’ll use and the shape and they’ll often have different names depending on those things
  • You can have a pizzette made from puff pastry, which are often used for kids’ birthday parties and tend to be with tomato or tomato and cheese (mozzarella)
  • You also have pizzette morbide – morbido means soft for which they use either milk bread or pane all’olio – oil bread and some bakeries will simply use their sourdough bread, which makes for a chewier texture
  • Nesim’s favorites are made with the dough that you use for pizza bianca

Other types

  • There are also the controversially named lingue di suocera, which translates to mother-in-law’s tongues  which are a long, oblong type of pizza
  • After World War II, pizza started to become more popular, not least due to the price. Pizza was considered the food of the people. It’s an easy and cheap way to feed a lot of people, as well as quick
  • The wood-fired pizzeria ovens can reach temperatures of 550 degrees Celsius (over 950 degrees Fahrenheit) and so a will pizza cook very quickly in just a couple of minutes

Pizza tonda romana

  • Pizza tonda romana shorted to just pizza tonda tends to have less proving
  • The long provings only came around in the early 2000s. Previously they would just mix the dough and let it prove for somewhere between two to five hours. This is perfect for the texture that you want for a pizza tonda – very thin but with a nice crispiness
  • The wood-fired oven, in Nesim’s opinion, is a key factor for this pizza. He feels like pizza just does not taste right unless cooked this way as you get flavor from the wood-burning
  • He also thinks it is important for the texture because wood-fired ovens reach higher temperatures than gas or electric ovens can, so in those the pizza has to cook longer and so dries up the dough
  • The pizza tonda is not crispy, but it’s also not soft – it is the best of both worlds
  • Nesim advises that if you don’t see a wood-burning oven in a pizzeria, then don’t eat there
  • For due diligence, he finally went to one of the most famous pizzerias in Rome that doesn’t use a wood-fired oven and the place will remain nameless but the pizza was bad, so he feels he was proven right!

Find good wood-fired oven pizza and how to eat it

  • Ai Marmi‘ in Trastevere, is one of the most historic pizzerias in Rome, opened in the early ’50s
  • Its name means marble because they have marble tops for their tables. This place is also referred to locally as l’Ombitorio or ‘the morgue’. This is one of Nesim’s go-to pizzeria if he is in Trastevere
  • They use a rolling pin to flatten the dough whilst in Naples they tend to do it by hand, leaving the crust a little puffier
  • The pizzas you see spinning in the air on TV is not a thing in Rome. Nesim is pretty sure it’s not a thing in Naples either because although there are spinning competitions, the dough has to have a ton of salt to make the structural integrity for spinning which doesn’t make for a good pizza – you wouldn’t be able to eat that dough
  • If you do see someone spinning pizza it is best to avoid that place
  • The thinness of this pizza also makes it a highly time-sensitive food. It’s at its best in the first couple of minutes after it comes out of the oven. It’s still really good once it cools, but the taste of it in those first couple of minutes is something else
  • Nesim advises “to attack quickly, with lots of vigor to make sure that you enjoy this pizza at its very best”
  • At these kinds of establishments, the pizzas will not be cut for you. This is for a few reasons:
    • Each person orders their own pizza, so you’re not sharing the pizza
    • Due to the time-sensitivity, sitting there and slicing all of the pizzas would slow down service
    • As they’re making hundreds of pizzas a night, if they had to cut every single one down, it would slow things down massively
  • You get a knife and fork so you can cut your own pizza. If you get a pizza that has been sliced, that is likely another warning sign that you are not in the best place
  • Some of Nesim’s types of pizzas in this kind of establishment are:
  • The margherita – the regular cheese pizza, is a good barometer to judge an Italian pizzeria on, because it’s so simple. If you’re not using the right ingredients or the right equipment, it’s blatantly obvious
  • Nesim’s favorite version of the margherita is made with buffalo mozzarella (mozzarella di bufala) because the water buffalo milk is saltier and fattier than regular cow’s milk, creating an interesting texture and a much more intense flavor
  • His other two favorites are the diavolo, the local equivalent of the pepperoni pizza. Diavolo means devil which refers to the heat in the salami
  • Note – there is no such meat in Italy as pepperoni. You do get ‘pepperoni’ on pizza, but they are peppers
  • Capricciosa pizza has mushrooms, a slice of prosciutto, a couple of olives, hard-boiled egg, and a pickled artichoke heart. It’s great for  people who can’t make a decision 
  • Pizza tonda is very affordable. In fact it is one of the most affordable meals that you can have in Italy. You can have a pizza, a drink, and a little fried appetizer (fritti) for between  €10 and  €12 Euros. Maybe as much as €15 for a higher-end pizzeria
  • The affordability is one of the reasons why pizzerias like to turn tables quickly. It’s one of the few types of dining establishments in Italy where they prefer that you don’t hang around chatting at the end of your meal. Normally the focus isn’t on turning tables – in a restaurant or a trattoria, but in a pizzeria, since the cost is very low, they need to in order to make more money
  • If you haven’t finished your pizza after a while, they may ask you, to kindly pay and move on. A lot of Italians aren’t particularly receptive to this because it is considered quite rude in most dining establishments, but it is needs must in Roman pizzerias
  • In our earlier podcast, on food etiquette, we covered the fact that you always need to ask for the check/bill in restaurants – it will not magically appear
  • If he was in a corner and Nesim was forced to choose one type of pizza for the rest of my life, it would probably be that pizza tonda romana. This is partly because he grew up with it, so has fond memories associated

Pizza al Taglio

  • This Roman style was invented in the ’60s and was an offshoot of pizza alla pala, so it is the fast-food version of the bakery pizza
  • It started with stand-alone businesses that only served this pizza or maybe a few other things like a little fritti, or roast chicken, but mostly focusing on the pizza
  • This pizza is cooked in rectangular black steel pans, which are emblematic of that style of pizza and is traditionally Roman
  • Up until the early 2000s, pizza was considered the food of the masses, so the focus was on keeping it affordable. You wouldn’t hear people talk about the different flours to use,  the proving or the quality of the cheese but this changed in the early 2000s
  • The pizzaïolo (pizza maker) that is credited with popularizing a long-proven version of pizza al taglio is called Gabriele Bonci. His pizza al taglio place is called Bonci Pizzarium, situated just behind the Vatican, and is one of Nesim’s favorite places in the city for pizza al taglio

The proof is in the pizza

  • The first pizzaïolo that actually came up with long prove dough is called Angelo Lezzi. He began to focus in on the digestibility of the dough, and therefore the selection of flour and experimentation with fermentation and proving
  • Prior to this, the Roman pizza, the pizza al taglio and pizza alla pala were often made with strutto (pork fat), which made it heavier than it is now. There was no focus on ingredients, it was just whatever cheap flour you could buy
  • One of the first things that Angelo Lezzi did was to start using good quality extra virgin olive oil instead of pork fat, which in and of itself makes the dough lighter and healthier, as well as more complex
  • He started playing with proving and fermentation with the aim of digestibility. Italians are lightly obsessed with digestibility. It’s the reason they get away with eating the ridiculous quantities of food that they do on a regular basis. This fixation with digestibility affects every food decision that Italians make – so they can eat more without feeling bad
  • The longer proofing makes the pizza more digestible for three main reasons:
    • It physically becomes a lighter product as it ferments, so it’s easier for your body to break down
    • It also naturally starts breaking down the gluten strands over time, making it more easily digestible, whether or not you’re intolerant.
    • It’s physically lowering the dose glycemic index because the yeast is eating the sugars and carbohydrates in the dough, meaning that you can eat more pizza without a sugar spike and the resulting sugar crash
  • For the digestibility of the dough, he also started adding more water to increase hydration, making it lighter and for better fermentation
  • The focus on the type of flour also became important – using heirloom varieties of wheat, which are often easier to digest and have lower levels of gluten
  • due to an accident, Angelo Lizzi’s experimentation led him to discover that you could slow down proofing through the use of col
  • He initially started his experiments by freezing the dough. Then one day a freezer broke overnight and kept the dough at around the same temperature as a fridge. In the morning he found that the dough had proved a huge amount and when he cooked a batch to see would would happen, he finally found exactly the results that he had been aiming for
  • Cold-proofing is now a commonplace technique, but it came about from a mistake. This cold proving allows for the fermentation to take place over a longer period of time and it leads to not only a much better flavor in the dough and makes it more digestible
  • This experimentation with pizza al taglio led to a focus on dough proving all across Italy
  • Around the time of this experimentation, the pinsa, oval pizza style started to appear. Pinsa, is actually a marketing gimmick. These are made with the same long-proven dough that is used for pizza al taglio. This family claimed that the pinsa traces its roots back to ancient Roman times and that it was the food of the gladiators made using ancient grains like millet, spelt, etc but that is not at all true. It’s basically just an oblong version of pizza al taglio, that doesn’t trace its history back further than the early 2000s

Where to find good pizza al taglio

  • A good barometer for judging if it is a good place for pizza al taglio, is to try their marinara. This is a tomato sauce made in Rome with tomatoes, garlic, extra virgin olive oil, chili flakes, and parsley. It’s a very flavorful pizza when made properly. Like the Margherita, because it is so simple if they have a good marinara, chances are everything else is going to be really good too
  • The marinara pizza, in many other parts of the world, will often be a seafood pizza. That’s not something that you generally find on Italian pizzas, especially not in Rome. The name ‘marinara’ comes from the sauce being made from ingredients that fishermen could afford 
  • A marinara pizza is a good choice for vegans. There is actually a lot of pizzas that come without cheese in Italy, in part because a lot of food was for poor people and cheese was fancy and expensive back in the day
  • Another vegan version of pizza that Nesim loves is pizza con le patate (pizza with potatoes), which may sound like it might be a bit much – starch on top of starch but it works really well with the cooked potato giving you a creamy texture
  • There are lots of modern pizza al taglio spots where they get really creative with their toppings. Some of Nesims favorites of the fancier pizzas are peaches and lardo (a cured back fat, similar to pancetta) and also foie gras and cherries

When in Rome… be sure to try the pizza

  • Rome is a very exciting city for pizza. Some may say the most exciting city for pizza in Italy – Nesim would, though he might be biased! 
  • There is a large huge variety of styles of pizza with their own history and unique characteristics. Each pizzaïolo will then personalize things to make it their own type of pizza
  • Katy recommends a food tour with Nesim in Rome because he takes you to the places in his neighborhood that he goes to himself and you get to try at least 2 styles of pizza with all kinds of flavors 

Follow Nesim on his food adventures

Find details of Nesim’s tours on his website fullbellytours.com and follow Nesim’s foodie adventures on his Instagram account @fullbellytours

About our guest – Nesim Bekalti

 

Nesim was born in Washington DC to a French-American mother and Tunisian father. At the age of 9 months, his parents went back to Rome, where they’d previously been living for 4 years as conference interpreters for the UN.

He grew up (and currently lives) in Testaccio, the neighborhood that gave birth to traditional Roman cuisine.  It is known as the culinary heart of Rome, and it’s where Romans from all around the city come to eat.

After graduating high school he realized his passions in life were cooking and traveling.  To him, this meant that if he became a cook it would pay him to travel the world, and he ended up spending over fifteen years working in restaurants around the globe.

He has a degree in Hotel and Tourism Management from New York University and has lived in Brussels, Madrid, Barcelona, Oaxaca, San Francisco, and New York City. He is fluent in French, Spanish, Italian, and English. He also obtained a sommelier certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers while living in California.

His passion for cooking came from being raised in Italy, where absolutely everything revolves around eating.  He moved back here 7 years ago where he’s been working ever since as a food tour guide.

Being raised in Italy by multicultural parents makes him both a foreigner and true Roman simultaneously. His background and travel experience allow him to entertainingly bridge the gap between guests and locals, easily explaining their cultural quirks and intricacies to you, and yours to them!

Ultimately, his passion lies in taking care of people (especially in relation to food), and ensuring their experiences are truly memorable and lots of fun!

You can find Nesim on these channels:

Places mentioned in the show

  • Forno Roscioli – bakery of the Roscioli family in the center of Rome
  • Pizzarium – run by Gabriele Bonci, one of Rome’s most famous stores is found behind the Vatican Museums

Tastes mentioned in the show

  • Pizza Montanara – historic variety of pizza, that is deep-fried
  • Cornicione – the crust of a traditional Neopolitan pizza
  • Pizza alla pala –  as it’s served on the wooden pale used to take the pizza to and out of the oven
  • Forni or Panifici – types of bakery where you will find pizza
  • Pizza Tonda Romana – round pizza, the style served in most restaurants in Rome
  • Pizza al taglio – pizza by the slice
  • Trapizzino the iconic Italian pizza pocket
  • Melanzane (eggplant) parmigiana – eggplant based filling for the Trapizzino
  • Panis focacius – means hearth bread and is an ancient roman bread
  • Pizza e mortazza – pizza bianca with mortadella, Mortazza being the original version of Mortadella they used locally in Rome, before they could get the good quality stuff from Bologna
  • Diavalo – pizza with a spicy salami (there is no such thing as pepperoni in Italy – pepperoni is a pepper)
  • Capricciosa – pizza with artichokes, ham, mushrooms, olives and boiled egg
  • Marinara – tomato sauce made with tomatoes, garlic, extra virgin olive oil, chili flakes, and parsley
  • Pizza con le patate – pizza with potatoes

Resources

  • Pizzaïolo – a master pizza maker
  • Gabriele Bonci – chef known for creative Pizza Alla Taglio
  • Angelo Lezzi – the one responsible for bring digestion and cold-proofing into pizza

Resources from Untold Italy

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