During a recent New York visit to promote his new book, Pizza: Seasonal Recipes from Rome’s Legendary Pizzarium, Italy’s most famous pizzaiolo, Gabriele Bonci, judged local versions of Italy’s most famous export. F&W took Bonci on a six-pizzeria tour through Manhattan and Brooklyn. Between bites, he dished on the ins and outs of pizza making and revealed why passion can trump tradition. His conclusion: New York’s new wave of hipster pizzerias far outshine the old standbys. The same holds true in the Italian capital, where the old-fashioned Roman-style pizzerias serve round, thin-crusted pies sparsely topped with mediocre ingredients. Instead, Bonci maintains that newer places are now turning out the city’s best product.
Bonci’s own Pizzarium, a 270-square-foot hole-in-the-wall with long lines, little seating and no table service puts the emphasis squarely on ingredients. Pizza by the slice, which is served from long rectangular trays and sold by weight, is made exclusively of stone-ground heirloom wheat and organic toppings.
While eating his way through New York, Bonci found a few places that could stand up to Rome’s great pizzerias and others that fell decidedly short. Here, Bonci's guide to detecting pizza greatness.
1. Your pizzaiolo knows the farmer, cheesemonger or butcher who supplies the toppings. Bonci’s motto is that eating is an ethical act and serving food is a huge responsibility. “You cannot make excellent pizza without excellent ingredients and knowing the people who grow your vegetables, make your cheese and mill your flour is an absolute necessity.”
2. The flour is organic, high quality and stone-ground. Pizzarium is known for its fragrant pizza base, which is riddled with bubbles and remains light in spite of its thickness. This is achieved by both technique and the choice of ingredients. “I use only fresh, organic, stone-ground wheat from artisanal mills. Industrial flour just won’t do. I don’t use it and I implore others to avoid it, too.” Artisanal stone grinding ensures small batches of flour produced with less heat than industrial sources; this preserves the flour’s nutrients.
3. The ingredients are treated with respect. Whether it’s a pile of flour sacks on the way to the washroom or discarded oil containers next to the oven, pizzerias give us clues about what ingredients they are using and how they are kept and where they are coming from. Bonci insists that flour must be refrigerated upon delivery. “Fresh flour is essential and it must be kept in a cool, dry place away from any heat sources,” says Bonci. If you see piles of flour languishing near the oven on your next pizzeria visit, run away!
4. The dough is properly leavened. Each pizza style calls for a different approach to mixing, working and rising the dough. In both Rome and New York City, long-leavened dough is all the rage, but it may not actually suit the style and ingredients, explains Bonci, “Many bakers make the mistake of forcing a 48-hour leavening using a ‘weak’ (lower protein) flour meant for short leavening times. The crust becomes nearly inedible.”
5. It’s easy to digest. Digeribilita—digestibility—is the ultimate test of food in Italy. Even the heaviest dish, if prepared correctly, should not tax the diner’s digestive system. Baked goods, and pizza in particular, are judged as much for their digestibility as for their flavor. If the pizza sits in your stomach after eating, the dough and toppings are a failure. “A well-made dough will feel and taste light,” declares Bonci. “If it has additives like dairy and sugar or animal fats, you won’t digest it. And that, for me, is not pizza.”