January is a pretty low-key month in the world of pizza tours, so I decided to spend 11 days researching my favorite dish in the place where it all began: Southern Italy. My travels brought me to a San Marzano tomato farm, a boutique extra virgin olive oil producer, two mozzarella di bufala dairies and about a dozen pizzerias. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting my findings.
First Stop: ROME
Flying into Rome is anticlimactic. There are no pizzaioli stretching dough right there at the terminal, anticipating every arriving flight with fresh pies. I wasn’t actually expecting freshly pressed olive oil fountains at baggage claim. I only half hoped for plates of fresh mozzarella at the customs checkpoint. Instead, the first pizza one sees after landing in Rome is the same exact airport pizza they sell at every major US transportation hub: sloppy, greasy, spongy wedges of filth. At first I thought I had boarded the wrong plane, but I doubted I crafty enough to fool all of the security checks along the way. Just as excitement started to turn into dread, I snapped back to reality and remembered that airports are not true representations of a city’s culinary skill. After leaving the airport, my mind settled a bit and I began a two-day quest for pizza.
Every pizza experience I had in Rome seemed to fall into one of two categories.
Pizza al Metro – Rome’s version of pizza by the slice. Loooooooong pies are baked in gas or electric ovens and patrons indicate the length they wish to purchase, which is then weighed and priced. New York has a couple of this type of pizzeria: PIE and PINCH (Pizza by the Inch). Patrons either eat their slice flat or fold it in half. They folded mine in half for me!
Thin Crust – There is no one definition for “thin crust.” People often refer to only a pizza’s circumferential bread as its crust, but the entirety of the bread portion actually qualifies. Thin crust pizza in Rome is mostly baked in a wood-fired brick oven and resembles some of the thinnest cracker-crust pizza I have had in the US. The circumferential crust, or cornicione, is just as flat as the rest of the pizza. It is crispy all the way through, without any tender regions, much like a matzoh cracker. The pizza below is pretty indicative of the pizza I ate in Rome, with processed mozzarella applied over a thin layer of sauce.
Overall, the pizza in Rome wasn’t mind-blowing. It was fun to see so many wood-fired ovens around but they were all making the same cracker pizza I usually avoid. If you think New York has a lot of pizzerias, wait until you see Rome. It is virtually impossible to stand on any street without seeing at least three pizzerias. I was tempted to stop at every one of them for at least a quick look but there was much work ahead. I was about to leave Rome for the true birthplace of pizza and all its European Union-protected ingredients: Campania!