From one end of the boot to the other, Italy's favourite fast food is the surprising subject of a new wave. Katie Parla takes a slice of the action.
Piazza Sannazaro in Naples' upscale Mergellina district is never really calm. The streets radiating from the large roundabout funnel traffic uphill to Vomero, along the Villa Comunale park to the historic centre, or south to the adjacent ferry port. But since February last year, the square's frenzied activity isn't just due to Neapolitan traffic patterns. At storefront 201/b, crowds fill Ciro Salvo's recently opened pizzeria, 50 Kalò, where a steady flow of diners feast on crocchè di patate (potato fritters), frittatine (pasta bound with bechamel, then fried) and thick-rimmed Neapolitan pizze, all chased with local white wines rich in volcanic minerality and palate-cleansing acid.
Packed pizzerie are hardly news in Naples, the reputed birthplace of pizza as we know it, but what Salvo turns out of his domed, wood-burning oven is different to what most of the competition offers. His high-hydration dough is masterfully fermented, expertly shaped, then topped with exquisite cheese, cured meats and seasonal produce. His menu reads like a gastronomic road trip through southern Italy: pizza with 'nduja, the soft and spicy sausage from Calabria, is paired with bitter local greens; artichokes accompany a Slow Food-certified capocollo from Puglia; fior di latte and buffalo mozzarella are worked by hand in the countryside just outside Naples.
What makes Salvo stand out is not just exceptional quality, but timing. For centuries, pizza in Naples - indeed, across Italy - was meant to be a cheap fast food. It became such an ubiquitous phenomenon that many pizzerie have managed to skate by on sub-par ingredients, quick doughs and low-quality toppings. Only recently has pizza in Naples and beyond entered a new era. Call it third-wave pizza, a movement that celebrates raw materials, gives supreme attention to fermentation, and restores dignity to the craft.
In Naples, living legend Enzo Coccia of La Notizia paved the way for this modern approach to how pizza is made and perceived. And thanks to his dedication, Salvo and others are transforming the humble national dish into a properly leavened art form made with meticulously sourced ingredients. I took a tour through Italy to find the finest pizze the peninsula has to offer and I found, in spite of their differences, that they all shared common qualities: exceptional ingredients sourced from small produers, cheesemakers and artisanal mills, a close collaboration with farmers and attentively leavened dough.
After 50 Kalò, the next stop had to be Pepe in Grani, Franco Pepe's pizzeria in the village of Caiazzo, 55 kilometres north-east of Naples. While Salvo's pizze are a celebration of southern Italy's ingredients, Pepe goes a step further, applying a hyper-regional approach to his sourcing. This third-generation baker is a devoted champion of his home turf and he has become the de facto ambassador of the Alto Casertano, his native subregion, a sparsely inhabited rural area with a distinct character all its own.
Residents of the Alto Casertano don't consider themselves remotely Neapolitan, calling their culture instead Samnite, referring to a pre-Roman tribe. The Iron Age Samnites are long gone, but the same rich and rugged volcanic terrain from which they eked out their living now gives life to Pepe's toppings. In the historic centre of Caiazzo, he has dedicated himself to making pizze in an old-fashioned, hands-on way, eschewing industrial techniques and single-handedly supporting the local agricultural economy. He even collaborates with a local agronomist and small farms to revive vanishing heirloom species and niche ingredients. From tomatoes cajoled back from extinction to Nero Casertano, a heritage swine, to onions from Alife, to conciato Romano, a wine-washed, amphora-aged cheese with ancient origins, Pepe's pizze draw from the region's finest flavours.
Pepe in Grani has become a benchmark for the nation's bakers and pizza-makers, and Pepe himself is a veritable poster boy for the power of pizza to transform a local economy. On a weekend night, he serves more than 400 pizze at Pepe in Grani and diners come from all over Italy to savour these exceptional pies, each bite guaranteeing Pepe's farmers have an ongoing market for their stellar goods.
Beyond pizza's ancestral homeland of the Campania region, pizza styles are less traditional and more varied. In the Italian capital, the local styles fall broadly into two categories: the crisp, thin-crusted pizza Romana, which is served at sit-down pizzerias, and the pizza al taglio, pizza by the slice, which is sold at takeaway joints all over town. Until Emma Pizzeria con Cucina opened in Rome's historic centre in May 2014, there were few Roman-style pizzerie of note. But thanks to a collaboration with one of the city's historic baking families, the Rosciolis, Emma Pizzeria serves a quality of pizza unmatched in its category.
Unlike Neapolitan-style pizza, which are stretched exclusively by hand and without tools, Roman pizze are rolled, flattening the small bubbles produced during the brief fermentation. Rolling renders the final product thin and crisp and without the trademark cornicione, the raised rim, of its Neapolitan counterpart. Because of the base's thin, crisp quality, the best Roman pizze are topped only sparsely so as not to stress or dampen the dough during or after baking.
At Emma Pizzeria con Cucina, the simple tomato and mozzarella pizza - with or without salty anchovy fillets - is the most satisfying to the traditional palate. But thanks to the Roscioli family's presence as a top gourmet food purveyor, as well as long-established baking dynasty, visitors can also choose higher-end toppings like jamón Ibérico or Cantabrian anchovies.
Sought-after toppings contrasted with the classic offerings is a feature at Pizzarium, Rome's premier pizza-by-the-slice place, which is just north of the Vatican walls. Founded in 2003 by chef and baker Gabriele Bonci, Pizzarium remains a simple takeaway hole in the wall in spite of its global celebrity. Rather than serving the round, personal pizze you might find at 50 Kalò, Pepe in Grani or Emma Pizzeria, Pizzarium serves slices cut from oblong slabs, allowing visitors to taste a variety of pizze at the outdoor tables. Depending on the day, you might find Bonci's slow-leavened einkorn flour-based dough topped with zucchini, ricotta and nine types of pepper, shredded horse jerky, or cod cooked Roman-style with tomato, pine nuts and raisins. The sheer variety at the pizza counter can be overwhelming, and it's best to visit with friends to try a wider selection, but don't underestimate the simple classics such as tomato and oregano or potato and mozzarella, both supreme expressions of the complexity that can come from just a few pure ingredients.
The notion of pizza as a social ritual to be shared among friends is a guiding principle at Emilia-Romagna's O Fiore Mio, 360 kilometres north of Rome. The first shop opened in Faenza in 2011 (followed by Milano Marittima and Bologna) and the specialty is "pizza a degustazione"; the fragrant, naturally leavened base made from stone-ground heirloom wheats is baked, with or without toppings, depending on the ingredient, then each pizza is delivered to the table one at a time, pre-sliced into eight pieces, encouraging everyone to share. Toppings are sourced from all over Italy, including local prosciutto and air-dried Piennolo del Vesuvio tomatoes from Campania. The dough recipe changes with the seasons, but is always composed of wholemeal ancient wheat varieties such as kamut and spelt, combined with an heirloom fruit-based sourdough starter, which guarantees a pleasantly aromatic crust.
The pizza a degustazione approach, as well as the raw and cooked and temperature contrasts at O Fiore Mio in Faenza, were echoed at my final stop, Simone Padoan's I Tigli in San Bonifacio, 30 kilometres east of Verona. There, Padoan and his team take toppings to a supremely sophisticated level. Though the menu lists the simple Margherita and other classics, the real standouts are those that feature surprising toppings and flavour combinations like scallops, baked radicchio and pancetta or pork cheeks, artichokes, orange and chocolate. Far from pizza's humble origins, conceptually and geographically, I Tigli, perhaps more than any other pizzeria I visited, challenges the concept that pizza is a simple, static fast food. While Padoan's wood-burning oven smouldered just metres away, I dismissed the idea that a pizza revolution is under way in Italy, preferring the idea that what I had witnessed and savoured was better described as a natural and welcome evolution.