“Pizza is sole nel piatto—sun on the plate!” pronounces Enzo Coccia, quoting poetry at La Notizia, his Neapolitan pizza temple.
But a bite of his pie topped with creamy clouds of burrata and fire-kissed Cetara anchovies and I’m murmuring “ossigeno”—oxygen. Coccia’s ethereal cornicione, that crucial inch of raised crust, hosts a colony of irregular air bubbles, with a dough that smells tart, tastes sweet, and lands on our table puffy and undulating from its searing 60 seconds in an 860-degree oven. By pairing faster-burning beechwood with oak, Coccia explains, he coaxes different temperatures inside his domed oven. Ah, yes. In the 21st century, poetry requires a touch of thermodynamics.
Scientist, auteur, ur-traditional baker, Coccia belongs to a brilliant new breed of Italian pizzaioli. They talk of Saccharomyces (yeasts) and esoteric tomato varieties with aplomb, and even Italy’s old-school bakers are starting to listen. Whether it’s an austerely perfect marinara in Naples or a pizza di patate tickled with Tahitian vanilla in Rome, pizza is having an evolutionary moment under the Italian sun.
Few other dishes, of course, offer the intense, primal satisfaction of pizza—which explains why it flourishes globally not just as its own food group but as something more of an edible life force. Whether you’re in São Paulo (bready pies topped, perhaps, with hearts of palm and linguiça sausage) or Singapore (anyone for pizza with chicken and kimchi at a Japanese-inspired chain?) or on a New York corner past midnight scarfing down that iconic thin cheesy slice—pizza satisfies our collective craving for doughy crunch, char, and goo, with the bright kick of tomato. Pizza is the ideal street food: quick, convenient, cheap, filling. And its universal appeal brings as much curse as blessing, its Italian origins all but neglected, its rigorous architecture and form bastardized and abused. Global? How about galactic? More than a decade ago Pizza Hut delivered six-inch salami pies to astronauts at the International Space Station. This past September, the Japanese wing of Domino’s upped the ante by announcing plans to open a branch…on the moon.
At this I said basta. America may be enjoying its own artisanal-pizza boom at this very moment, but having the right pie at the right place on its Italian home turf is like discovering pizza joy for the very first time. And so, craving to assess the work of visionary pizzaioli and to reexamine pizza’s roots, my boyfriend, Barry, and I plotted a tour of the most exciting pizzerie of Naples and Rome, both new-wave and old-world. Which city wins the golden pizza paddle? Read on to find out.
A third-generation pizzaiolo, coccia opened his original Pizzaria La Notizia in 1994 in the well-heeled Posillopo quarter. There he developed his ingenious method of a smidgen of yeast (an ounce will leaven more than a thousand pizze) and a 12-hour room-temperature fermentation, for airiness. The new La Notizia launched in 2010—same street but light years away. Futuristic temperature- and humidity-controlled fermentation chambers here reduce the margin of error to zero. “ZE-RO!” Coccia brags.
With its tomato-red chairs posed against an apple-green wall, the new place is also a sleek shrine to Campanian products. Such as Fratelli Fusco dairy’s pear-shaped Provolone del Monaco cheeses, aged in grottoes, or Karma microbrewery’s Lemon Ale with its intriguing hints of Sorrento citrus. On the backlit wine shelf sit inky reds from Terre del Principe, whose owners spearheaded the revival of the indigenous Pallagrello grape.
The crusts of La Notizia’s three dozen pizze are elegant essays in smoke, air, and acidity, precisely matched to their toppings. Some are kneaded with the soft Caputo 00 flour; whole wheat is added for others. We try a spring still-life of favas, asparagus, and pungent Campanian pecorino from herb-fed Laticauda sheep. Then, a dusky-sweet pie of yellow tomatoes, green Cilento figs, and buffalo bresaola. On our seventh specimen—a whole-wheat calzone exploding with a bitter-chocolate lava—we realize something shocking. We could eat even more.
And we do—a lot more—the following day, venturing into the historic (and histrionic) Spaccanapoli district in the centro storico. One of the neighborhood’s main arteries, the narrow Via dei Tribunali, resembles a long setup of crèches besieged by darting, beeping motorinos. Welcome to the home turf of traditional pizza napolitana. Gino Sorbillo ciao’s us at a marble table of his namesake pizzeria. Sorbillo, who is only 37, has a face from a Bronzino portrait, the kiss-kiss populist touch of a politico (he recently ran in a mayoral primary), and rock-star status among Napoli’s pizz-addicts.
“My nonna Carolina,” he hoots. “Twenty-one children—all pizzaioli!”
Though he churns out 10 times more pies (1,000 every day) than Coccia, Sorbillo still delivers an exemplary crust: on the robust, chewy side, but artfully blistered and bubbly. Neapolitans will insist that condimenti (toppings) should never—ever!—detract from the impasto (crust). But Sorbillo’s do. Behold the lyrical Mediterranean combo of shaved artichokes, Vesuvian Piennolo cherry tomatoes, aged goat cheese, and basil. Or the gutsy homage to the black Caserta pig, combining its strutto (lard) and salami with a salty, earthy, black-olive flourish. The classic margherita practically bursts with red, white, and green.
To comprehend the new Neapolitan pizze, you need your pomodoro Ph.D. Sorbillo opens some boutique cans for instruction. Here are the elongated, bright-tasting tomatoes from Agrigenus, a cooperative, he says, that is run by the head of the San Marzano DOP; there’s a purplish, sugar-sweet specimen called tigrato nero. Cheese? Buffalo mozzarella is chichi, but the workaday cow’s-milk fior di latte melts better. I’m told a Caserta dairy is now producing a unique cow-and-buffalo blend for Sorbillo’s margherita.
Next, Sorbillo leads us off to his favorite nearby pizza parlors. At each we’ll try the specialties della casa. Spaccanapoli pizzerie often double as friggitorie (fried-snack joints), and at the 1936 Di Matteo, up Tribunali, we’re regaled with pizza-fritta magnificence. A giant golden-fried crescent, oozing ricotta and provola cheese dotted with ciccioli (cracklings), has me wondering how you can marry pizza-like chewiness with fritter-like fluffiness. A cult of Clinton has reigned here since the ex-prez famously stopped in for a bite in 1994. Other than Bill photos, Di Matteo is a well-lit neorealist dive with a thronged take-out counter and—it goes without saying—mementos of local soccer deity Diego Maradona.
Sorbillo requests a marinara to go. “Why is Neapolitan pizza wet in the center?” he asks Socratically. “Because….” He folds his pie in four like a handkerchief—portafoglio to locals—creating a self-saucing package. “Because Neapolitan pizza is street food,” he declares. “Eaten on foot, on a bench.”
Or on a motorino? Like the one with the munching maniac who almost runs over us outside.
We arrive unscathed at the nearby Il Pizzaiolo del Presidente, opened in 2000 by the late über-pizzaiolo Ernesto Cacialli. Beyond the visual fanfare of the ubiquitous Bill hangs a photo of Cacialli with chefs Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adrià. This sends Sorbillo into scientific mode. “Yeast and its environment interact,” he elucidates while we taste Presidente’s pizza with smoked Agerola provola cheese, basil, and those Vesuvian vine-ripened pomodorini. I comment on the crust’s remarkable suppleness.
“Each pizzeria is a unique microclimate,” he goes on. “The same pizzaiolo will make a distinctly different crust a few yards away.”
Enzo Cacialli, Ernesto’s son, possessed of the round brow and stout neck of a legionnaire, adds his two bits in a thick Neapolitan dialect. “A great pizza?” he philosophizes: “Amore. Passione. E sa-cri-fi-cio!” I refrain from materialistically mentioning the Maserati of pizza ovens crafted by the most in-demand third-generation forno artisan Stefano Ferrara. Del Presidente, Sorbillo, and La Notizia are all proud owners of a Ferrara forno, with its gorgeous mosaic-tiled exterior and a refractive brick vault that can take 1,600-degree heat.
Bidding Sorbillo arrivederci, we hail a cab to an address secretly recommended by Coccia. It pulls up by Da Attilio, on a market lane resembling an Arab souk. The place doubles as a gem of a family trattoria, with Mamma cooking garlicky spaghetti with mussels and her son the pizzaiolo waiting tables. Just when I think no carb can surprise, here come porcini folded into a singed, tender, tubular “pizza-cannolo.” And then wow! Pizza alle carnevale—shaped like a star, its stuffed points bursting with blobs of ricotta, its middle luscious with tomato sauce, mozzarella, and sausage. Fade out: syrupy caffè served in liqueur glasses, and Signora Maria Francesca’s tall, not-too-sweet candied citrus cassata cake.
We board the train to Rome desperately guzzling Ferrarelle fizzy water before the next onslaught of dough.
A pizza native to Rome? Consider the pizza al taglio: baked in lengthy rectangles or oblongs, whacked into sections, weighed, and brusquely shoved across worn bakery counters. Under a glistening sheen of tomato sauce or shingled with rosemary-scented potato slices? Nice. But just as good bianca (no topping). Unlike the round Neapolitan “sun” blistered in wood-burning ovens, traditional pizza al taglio is baked in an iron teglia (pan), in a gas oven, provoking a different yeast biochemistry. Which is better? Tough call.
And then again there’s pizza Bonci, from the eccentric thirtysomething iconoclast of Pizzarium.
Gabriele Bonci, who trained as a chef and resembles a fidgety bear, likes to operatically kiss bread loaves and coo to his crusts—at least when TV crews are around. They often are. Bonci is famous for trolling villages for lievito madre (sourdough starter; his oldest is nearly 100 years old) and setting yeast traps up trees. Yeast—wild yeast—is the thing. Dismissing brewer’s yeast as dead junk, Bonci has created a unique kind of impasto: neither Neapolitan bubbly, nor Roman chewy, but fluffy and bready and beautifully alive in the mouth. His dough embraces such esoteric flours as Kamut and enkir, from the organic Piedmontese mill Mulino Marino. Its almost liquid consistency—less flour equals fluffier crust—requires an ingenious pizza-shaping method, manipulations evocative of making fresh mozzarella.
When Pizzarium opened in 2003, customers balked at the subversive crust and chef-y toppings. Today global gastronauts throng into Bonci’s dime-size joint in Trionfale, recently remodeled with modern slate.
We’re at Pizzarium ourselves, waiting for Bonci—and waiting, as usual. But time passes quickly when you’re snagging piping hot squares topped with smoked ricotta and asparagus tips, then with pecorino, favas, and house-cured guanciale, then with tender nuggets of rabbit, grapes, and bitterish chicory. Not to overlook “LSD” (licorice, sausage, dates).
“So sorry! Gabriele...he not coming!” bleats an assistant. “Un disastro! He drop his telefonino in the oven!”
Cell phones aside, Bonci has spawned a movement in Rome. Next day we’re at 00100, in hipster Testaccio. Named for Rome’s former zip code—and the 00-type flour—this colorful cool-kid nook consists of a pair of marble half-counters and two benches outside under a graffitied wall. “Gabriele lends us his lievito madre,” a server informs, handing us a slab of Bonciesque crust dressed with mozzarella and Stilton under drizzles of port reduction. “The starter’s from a Puglian village,” he adds. “From eleven generations!”
Stefano Callegari, the owner, is giving the yeasty Bonci a run as Rome’s pizza prince. He also co-owns the pizzeria Sforno—terrific but way out in the sticks—and has just launched Tonda, in the leafy suburb of Montesacro. Besides pizza al taglio, 00100 is famous for its genius trapizzine: pizza bianca triangles filled with saucy Roman stews that deliciously seep into the dough’s porous crannies. Today there’s tomatoey tripe, and tongue in sharp salsa verde—iconic Testaccio quinto quarto (offal). And baccalà cooked in a rich foil of onions, raisins, and pine nuts.
Barry has an epiphany: everything tastes better on pizza.
We’re still not done with Testaccio. Up along Piazza di Santa Maria Liberatrice, where nonnas promenade arm in arm and tattooed skateboarders threaten their peace, the classic pizzeria Da Remo awaits. If pizza al taglio is a lunchy snack, at night Romans dine on their own tonda (round) pizza variety. The crust? Sottile (thin) and croccante (crispy)—adjectives utterly reviled in Naples. Da Remo’s wood-fired margherita is Twiggy to Napoli’s Sophia Loren—wispy as a wafer with deliciously semi-burnt edges that crackle. Romans call this crust scrocchiarella. And they love it so much we wait almost an hour for our rickety sidewalk table—but who’s complaining?
“one-century-old lievito madre, eh? Eleven generations—eh, eh?” Giancarlo Casa is chuckling. Well, yes, even Bonci admits that at 100 years the dough starter destabilizes and needs the boost of much younger leavening.
Casa is no envious skeptic. Partners with Callegari at Sforno, he also owns the awesome La Gatta Mangiona (“eater-cat”) in the residential Monteverde district, where kitty-themed artworks—by his father-in-law—hang above blue-checkered tablecloths. By 9 p.m. this pizzeria/trattoria is buzzing with youths in well-ironed T-shirts and ladies in big costume jewelry. To drink—a cult Baladin Almond 22 Faro beer? A minerally Slovenian white? The classic Roman pre-pizza fritters are exemplary here: pecorino-and-mint croquettes with tight, elegant breading; suppli (cheesy rice balls) updated with saffron and asparagus. Our verdant pizza—pesto, ricotta, zucchini—shows off a Napo-Romano crust: Neapolitan puffiness and crisp Roman edges—the best of both worlds. “The chaff in our Abruzzo bread flour,” Casa says, “imparts a developed acidity.” Ditto the 24-to-48-hour marathon fermentation. Who said yeast has to be from only grandmas or trees?
A collective cheer goes up as our “pizza Igles” travels to table. Named for a famous Italian chef, Igles Corelli, it suggests the mythical gargouillou salad of French super-toque Michel Bras. Arranged on a base of baked candied tomatoes is a breathtaking bouquet of herbs, micro-lettuces, and edible petals—of pansies, forget-me-nots, and delicate garlic flowers. Pizza as framable art?
For pizza bianca as drug, we keep returning to Antico Forno Roscioli, off Campo dei Fiori. When I first got addicted to the crusty, salt-speckled stuff, the place resembled any other mom-and-pop bakery. Now it’s gone spiffy with metal sculpture suspended over the sleek, dark marble counter. Using a natural yeast starter for his three-foot-long oblongs, master baker Pierluigi Roscioli also favors cool, long fermentation and a rest under an olive-oil glaze—to develop that upper-crust toastiness. The super-thin rossa shimmers with a red pomodoro sheen; pizza with basil and mozzarella clumps makes an ornamental herbal patch. But bianca is best.
Whack whack! go the blue-handled knives. No, no! regulars protest, wanting to wait for the next batch if the pizza has sat around for more than a nanosecond. This is anti-Neapolitan dough, crunch where you expect puff, resolving into a moist, profound chewiness that fills the mouth with something like the essence of pleasure. We buy our bianca and a garlicky slab of porchetta from the adjacent deli counter and eat our DIY panini under Campo dei Fiori’s stern statue of Giordano Bruno, the priest/astronomer burned at the stake. Baking is science. And cosmology. In my dough delirium I’m pretty sure Giordano is nodding along.
Here, our pizza competition cheat sheet. It’s a close call, but look who takes it by a slice.
Pizzaria La Notizia: 5
Pizzeria Gino Sorbillo: 4.5
Di Matteo: 3
Il Pizzaiolo del Presidente: 3.5
Da Attilio: 4
Da Remo: 2.5
La Gatta Mangiona: 4.5
Antico Forno Roscioli: 4.5
The Final Tally
*ratings are out of 5 stars
Anya von Bremzen is a T+L contributing editor.