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Scott's Pizza Chronicles: Roman Invasion

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Pizza al metro in Rome. [Photograph: Kenny Dunn]

There is no such thing as Italian pizza. Contrary to what the VPN, APN, DOP and other acronyms might have led you to believe, there's more to Italy than Naples alone. No other style has a history quite as long, but the soft round discs with puffy edges do not speak to the needs of an entire peninsula. A piece of land with such diverse history and terrain has just as eclectic a menu, leaving no single Italian pizza. We're seeing a LOT of Neapolitan representation these days, but if New York is any indication, I'd say it's time to brush up on your Julius Caesar and prepare for a visit from the Roman pizza army.

What Is It?

Roman pizza comes by many names, but the ones you'll see most often are pizza al metro (pizza by the meter) and pizza al taglio (pizza by the cut). They both mean pretty much the same thing: long rectangular pizzas. As the name pizza al metro indicates, the length of a pie is usually around 1 meter (three feet). The pizzas can be thin and crunchy or slightly thicker (1–2 cm) and chewy.

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A folded slice from Forno at Campo de Fiori in Rome.

In Rome, the pizza is sold by weight. You just tell the server how big a slice you want, they cut it from the full pie, and then they toss it onto the scale. Large slabs of the thin Roman variety often get folded up like a sandwich and wrapped with bakers' paper. The thicker version is left open-face and eaten like a common slice. This apparently works in Rome but not in New York. Monica Von Thun Calderon of Grandaisy Bakery has been making this style of pizza in NYC since 1994 when she was a founding partner of Sullivan Street Bakery. She commented that her customers aren't interested in customized portion sizes; they'd rather grab a pre-cut slice and split. The Roman pizzerias I've seen either have their slices pre-cut or make their cuts fresh per order. It's pretty cool to watch because they often secure the slice with tongs and snip away the slice with a pair of scissors. They then reheat the slice in a small tabletop oven and serve it slightly warm.

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Cutting a slice at Pizza Roma in NYC. [Photograph: Scott Wiener]

What's The History?

Although Rome is only 226 km from Naples, it somehow managed to avoid adopting the Neapolitan pizza style until midway through the last century. That most likely has to do with the extremely provincial nature of Italy, paired with the negative connotation Naples carries. Pizza never really caught on in Rome until hungry American soldiers came looking for it during WWII. Thanks to American high protein flour that was being sent to Italy as wartime relief, Roman bakers were able to create an incredibly thin, crispy version of what was happening 226 km to the southeast.

But just as they did in the United States, large brick ovens were ditched in favor of the smaller footprint and tighter economics of stone-lined deck ovens. Natural gas is way too expensive in Rome (probably because you need to call an archaeologist before you install underground gas lines), so bakers opted for electric instead. The evenly heated rectangular oven interiors fit long pizzas much more efficiently than small round ones, and so the Roman style was born around the 1960's.

Why Is It Working?

Rome and New York are both big cities with heavy pedestrian traffic—the perfect Petri dish for pizza-by-the-slice vendors. With a ripe market like this, hand held pizza fits right in. It's a great deal for the customer, who can grab what they want and go, but it's also a fantastic opportunity for the baker to sell their product to clientele who don't need formal seating and table service. Less space is required, smaller staff is sufficient, and turnover is faster. That means overhead is lower and profit is maximized!

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Kickin' it Roman style at Merilu Pizza Al Metro in NYC.

But there's more to Roman pizza than mere economics, the pizza also tastes great! Think of Roman pizza as the by-the-slice-compliment to Neapolitan pizza. Both utilize sparse and balanced toppings of fresh ingredients atop a carefully made base. The price of a slice is usually between $3.50 and $5, but I've seen it go even higher for seasonal specialties. Most folks are OK with this somewhat high price tag when a product is obviously of a higher quality (just ask any Difara fan).

The particulars of the bake are also pretty impressive. One great pizza al taglio spot on Bleecker Street called Pizza Roma uses type '00' flour from Lazio because it holds up to an incredibly long 96 hour fermentation time. This long fermentation breaks down carbohydrates, making the finished product lighter and more digestible. Pizza Roma also uses a high hydration dough formula (around 80%) to compensate for additional moisture loss during the reheating phase. That's a lot of water, so the resulting crust is moist and airy.

Seems pretty well thought out, right?
I think the great benefit of this style is its scarceness. Just a few Roman pizza purveyors are setting the definition for others to follow in the future. It just so happens that this is an extremely competitive time for pizzerias, especially with an unproven concept. Unlike the contemporary slice shop, I feel that Roman pizzerias tend to be more hit than miss. It'll take time before we know Roman pizza is here to stay or just a visitor in the American pizza universe. It may not be what we're used to, but it sure is Italian.

About the author: Scott Wiener runs tours of significant NYC pizzerias with an emphasis on the history, science, technology, economics and deliciousness. You can sign up for a tour at scottspizzatours.com or follow his pizza explorations on Twitter via @scottspizzatour

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