Rome's Premier Pizza Makers Are Coming to America
Two elite pizzaioli are opening spots in Chicago and New York.
In spite of pizza’s status as Italy’s most beloved export, relatively few regional styles (Neapolitan being a noted exception) have made it across the Atlantic. This year, a pair of Roman pizzaioli are aiming to change that. Stefano Callegari kicked things off last week when he inaugurated a branch of Trapizzino in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, while Gabriele Bonci will open a (yet to be named) Roman-style pizza by the slice shop in Chicago’s West Loop this summer.
Over the past decade, Callegari and Bonci have become Rome’s premier pizzaioli, emerging as innovators in a crowded market by pushing the boundaries of Rome’s ubiquitous pizza al taglio (pizza by the slice), a style unique to the Italian capital. Generally speaking, this Roman fast food sold in bakeries and takeaway shops, where it is baked in rectangular pans in electric deck ovens, then sliced and sold by weight. Callegari’s and Bonci’s signature styles were among the first in town to evolve from the local pizza al taglio tradition, applying long, cold fermentation to their doughs and introducing playful topping combinations to the canon of classics. In spite of these similarities, their individual styles are quite different and each has built a reputation for his personal style.
In 2008, Stefano Callegari pushed his pizza innovations beyond the classic slice with the invention of the trapizzino, thick triangular pizza bianca (unadorned pizza) sliced open and filled to order. His invention derives its name from a play on words, combining tramezzino (a triangular sandwich served in cafes) and pizza. To produce trapizzini, dough is baked in to roughly 4-inch squares, sliced diagonally, then sliced open on one side before being toasted and filled with items that evoke the Roman classics: braised oxtail, simmered tongue with salsa verde, vinegar-spiked tomato-less chicken cacciatore.
Although its fillings are Rome-inspired, Callegari’s invention was influenced by other Italian cities, “Florence stalls specializing in tripe sandwiches, Palermo has its famous spleen sandwiches. I though this new way of eating Roman dishes inside pizza could become a local custom like those.” He was right. The snack has become wildly popular and Trapizzino shops have popped up all over the Italian capital. The story of the trapizzino’s arrival in America began at one of those shops.
Two years ago, Rome-born, US-based television producer Luca Vincenzini was visiting his mother when he sensed enticing aromas wafting into her apartment. He went downstairs to investigate the origin and discovered Trapizzino’s Ponte Milvio branch. “I went into the shop and tried one and it tasted great,” explains Vincenzini. “But delicious food only passes the ultimate quality test if you feel light and don’t need to drink loads of water after eating it. Trapizzino passed.” A few months later, Vincenzini and his business parter Nick Hatsatouris approached Callegari with the idea of transporting his innovation to New York. Callegari accepted, reflecting “New York is the center of the world. It’s a place where everything is born and where the public has a great understanding of global flavors. We thought Trapizzino could be at home there.”
Vincenzini, Hatsatouris, and Callegari are so confident that the Rome import will be appreciated by New Yorkers that they don’t plan to adapt the trapizzino fillings to American palates, instead reproducing the Roman recipes faithfully. The decision was based party on an increased awareness of Roman cuisine in the US in recent years. Hatsatouris elaborates, “Across America people know more about regional Italian cuisines than ever. Places like Marta and Maialino in Manhattan have been making people aware of Roman classics, [the quintessential Roman pasta] cacio e pepe is everywhere, and I think most people identify carbonara as Roman. As the trapizzino relates to pizza, Napoli has had a ton of attention and people know what a true Neapolitan pizza is we feel like it’s Rome’s turn to have some recognition.”
While Trapizzino is banking on the Roman identity of its fillings to win eaters over, Gabriele Bonci can leverage international fame earned at his legendary pizza by the slice joint Pizzarium, a veritable pilgrimage destination for the world’s pizzaioli and pizza lovers. A trained chef turned baker, Bonci is credited with elevating pizza al taglio to an art form; this achievement, coupled with Pizzarium’s proximity to the Vatican, has earned him the nickname “the Michaelangeo of dough.” He is also known locally as a champion of small farms and natural foods, a philosophy he dreamed of transporting to America.
His first visit to the US, which was only in 2013, was eye opening. Although he was mostly underwhelmed with New York’s pizza, he encountered what he calls “americani del nuovo cibo,” kindred spirits who also are devoted to promoting sustainable and artisanal ingredients. He developed a plan to reproduce Pizzarium-style pizza in America, found US partners, and Bonci USA was born in 2016.
The first branch of Bonci’s US Pizzarium outpost will be located in the vibrant West Loop of Chicago not far from Google—and soon McDonald’s headquarters, as well. Just as at Pizzarium, the venue will sell pizza by the slice by weight; prices will range from around $6 to around $17 per pound, depending toppings, a choice that is intended to satisfy a variety of price points. In addition to slices, customers will also be able to order quarter, half, and whole rectangular pies. Departing from the Pizzarium format, the place will also sell sandwiches. Bonci and his partners are in the process of developing toppings and combinations they think will be compatible for Chicago and plan to use a combination of Italian and domestic cheeses and cured meats.
Bonci plans for his US locations to mirror the quality of Pizzarium. “In bringing my pizza to America, I have a huge responsibility to live up to expectations,” Bonci acknowledges. “After traveling to Chicago and getting to know products from American farms and producers, I am inspired and totally confident I will be able to replicate the spirit of my Roman pizzeria in the US.”