Rome, Italy. I cannot believe that up until two weeks ago I hadn’t been to this major European capital. After having visited, throughout the 28 years of my life, almost all other big culture hubs on this ancient continent, I had kept the best for last, like that best bite of pizza (the one heaviest with toppings) saved for the end. I’ve always know that Italy has the most to offer when it comes to cuisine. But, like France, it is one of the most imitated. The U.S. dining scene is littered with failed attempts at real Italian cooking. And the more these restaurants claim to be “authentic,” “regional” and “inspired by nonna’s recipes,” the more they tend to crash and burn when it comes to this cuisine, based on simplicity and natural flavor. A string of terrible “Italian” (but really, “Italian-American,” “Italian-Argentine” and even Italian-Spanish”) meals have left me jaded and I no longer trust Italian restaurants (no matter how high their reviews are) to produce and serve decent food. To put it simply: I don’t eat Italian food, except in Italy. I don’t care whether it was your grandparents, parents or you who immigrated directly from la patria. I don’t care if you’re fresh off the boat, poised to bring your grandmother’s classics to wherever you’ve landed. The flour won’t be the same as in Italy, so the dough won’t be the same. The veggies won’t be the same. And the mozzarella, for sure, just won’t be the same.
Last summer I visited Tuscany and discovered what pasta is supposed to feel like in my mouth. I learned that “spaghetti bolognese” is either a joke or for children, and that meaty bolognese ragu should instead be served with tagliatelle and tagliatelle alone. I learned about tripe stew, and tried boar and rabbit cooked in local wine. And I discovered the piadina (perhaps my favorite part of the trip). Not long ago I popped my proverbial Rome cherry, visiting the Eternal City with two friends from Barcelona. High on my list were the three p’s: pizza, pasta and piadinas.
We started strong, with a popular local hang called Pizzarium. This buzzing pizzeria is the most recent success story of Rome’s acclaimed pizza king Gabriele Bonci. Behind the glass counter is a stunning rainbow of pizza al taglio (rectangular) with a range of wonderful toppings I’ve never seen on pizza before. To the left a rich tomato sauce screamed out for attention, while bundles of ricotta and mozzarella seemed to glow white nearby. A stunning green pesto, a vibrant vegetable puree, webs of frizzy arugula, patches of fresh tomato… There were thinly sliced ribbons of gorgeous local cold-cuts, among which a juicy mortadella and prosciutto caught my eye. Pizzas are cut with scissors into the size you want and thrown back into the oven to warm up. They’re served on paper plates for easy consumption, for take away or to eat standing around the tables outside.
How to choose? That’s difficult. Your best bet is to point to a couple and ask for small pieces, so that you can try as many as you can. They all look wonderful and you will want to try them all. There wasn’t a single one to put at the end of my “what to order list.” Process of elimination simply fails at Pizzarium.
Finally we chose three slices, drizzled on some olive oil and took them out to eat on the high-tables outside. Luckily, my friends are good ones, so I was able to try three types.
First, the most basic and my personal favorite. A fluffy and chewy, but not too thick base baked to a beautiful golden brown color. Fresh and naturally sweet tomato sauce added a splash of bright red. And finally, some bundles of creamy, bright white ricotta adding the most wonderful texture – light and airy, moist and very, very fresh. The cheese melted on my palate, contrasting wonderfully with the solid bread base.
Next, a pizza with a base of sweet pumpkin puree. This one came topped with patches of smoked and fresh mozzarella and a mess of kale leaves and tender squash greens. Remarkably fresh flavors and textures – the taste of spring spread over crunchy, browned dough.
And finally, a pizza loaded with tender Swiss chard, thinly sliced potato and fresh/smoked mozzarella. The chard was clearly sauteed in house, adding a wonderfully deep and woodsy green flavor to this pizza. If vegetarian food were always this tasty, filling and complex I wouldn’t scoff so readily at vegetarians.