The past few weeks we’ve been increasingly scombussolati (“de-compassed”, discombobulated, unsettled). Moving house is always a bit of a whirlwind, and we’re on our third move in less than three years. Moving internationally is even more complicated – especially when we can’t actually move back into our own house in England just yet.
While our clobber went off in 11 hefty boxes last week, yesterday was even worse – we said goodbye to our beloved cats. Now, if you’re not an animal person, look away, as you probably won’t understand.
If you are an animal person, and you’re childless like us, you may well understand how important pets are. They’re not exactly surrogate kids, as it’s not like they’ll ever become stroppy teenagers, threaten to leave, then actually do leave, then come back again with dirty laundry. But you do invest a lot of time, money and affection in them.
We didn’t have an easy transition to living in Rome in August 2011, and it was only when our cats arrived in May 2012 that the apartment we were inhabiting here actually took on some of the qualities of a home.
They went off yesterday, chauffeured by a nice lady called Den and accompanied by three other cats, also making their way from Italy, specifically Naples, to south London, with their owners. It was all very emotional, so we had to get out of the flat, which felt oddly dead without them. To paraphrase something Jean Cocteau reportedly said, cats become the soul of the home, and that soul had just left in a cage in the back of a people carrier.
It seemed like the ideal opportunity to go and indulge ourselves in some of the greatest grain-related goodies available in Rome: specifically Gabriele Bonci’s hole-in-the-wall pizza takeaway Pizzarium, and Rome’s best beer bar, Open Baladin. I’ve been meaning to write more about the latter for ages, as Baladin really is the most important brewery in Italy’s craft beer scene, but I seem to have accidentally deleted most of my photos (ecco: scombussolato) so that’ll have to wait.
Instead: Pizzarium. We heard about this place pretty soon after we arrived in Rome. It’s an institution and Bonci himself is a celebrated pizzaiolo and TV celebrity. When we went there first, I wasn’t entirely convinced, as I was hung up on the thin, crispy, slightly burned Roman pizzas of places like Ai Marmi in Trastevere and Da Remo in Testaccio. I still love those pizzas, but I’m totally a Bonci convert now.
Bonci’s principles were of course more in line with mine – he uses stoneground flours made from older wheat varieties, natural leavens and long fermentation, and tops the pizza with local and seasonal ingredients, along Slow Food lines. But I wasn’t entirely sold on the thick bases and felt the toppings tended towards overload. The latter can still arguably be the case, but they’re delicious nonetheless. I’m tired of the over-quoted Vogue soundbite about him that draws parallels with a certain Renaissance man and is included on his upcoming English book* but he’s certainly a master craftsman of the pizza and great ambassador for real food.
I have mentioned Bonci before, as we did a pizza-making class with him last year. And he’s a big part of the scene I really enjoy here in Rome. Along with Baladin brewery’s Theo Musso and Leonardo di Vincenzo of Birra del Borgo, he’s a co-founder of Open Baladin bar. The same trio is also behind the more recently opened bistro No.Au (another place we need to go before we leave). Bonci baked goods are available at both venues.
After a half hour walk in the hot October sun, along the Aurelian wall, then around the south and north Vatican walls, we reached Pizzarium, which is in the Trionfale quartiere. We were sold the moment we walked into Pizzarium and asked about one particular pizza. Or at least Fran was sold, as the pizza was cavolini di Bruxelles (Brussels sprouts, the first of the season) e mortadella, two of her favourite things. And seriously, who’d have ever thought of combining these on a pizza? That’s Bonci right there – he’s innovative and got a surprising sense of what will work.
We also had a pizza farcita (filled pizza), a kind of sandwich with two layers of dough and a layer of primo sale (“first salt”, a young sheep’s milk cheese), rocket and tomato pesto between. It was delicious, with a lovely balance between the slight pepperiness of the rocket, the sharpness of the pesto and the smoothness of the cheese, itself an interesting alternative to mozzarella.
The other we had was the classic potato pizza. People may think, Hey – carb and carb? Really? But it’s delicious and quite possibly my favourite type of pizza, especially when there’s a bit of rosemary in play too. It was surprisingly light, with a good crunch where the dough and potato have caught slightly in the oven, with a pleasing, simple saltiness.
We also had some suppli – a classic and one made with primo sale and ʼnduja, soft spicy sausage from Calabria. Both delicious, but I’d still say the best suppli I’ve had yet in Rome was at La Gatta Mangiona. Though Bonci’s pizza pips theirs.
We ate all this sitting outside on the one bench, luckily having avoided the lunchtime rush, when we had been busy coercing the poor cats into the back of the people carrier and feeling mighty guilty and sad about it.
Most of the rest of the Pizzarium punters were foreigners, proving how Bonci’s reputation has made this small pizza al taglio hole in the wall a key stop of the tourist schedule for discerning food enthusiasts visiting Rome. I just wish we’d been a few more times, but it’s in a slightly awkward location up behind the Vatican. Well, awkward for us, as it’s not on a handy bus route, we’re not on Metro line A, and we don’t contribute to Rome’s excessive population of polluting cars and scooters.
Afterwards, not wanting to go back to a house that was like Tony Makarios without his daemon, we continued our long head-straightening walk. We headed back into town, and down to Open Baladin, near Campo deʼ Fiori. And drank much-needed restorative ales.
The sharp, firm hoppiness of my Hopbleoem, a special from Extraomnes brewery in Lombardy, with its notes of salty sweat, citrus and tomato plants, provided a good slap in the face though it was still sad going home, via another fight with our mobile phone provider (what does it take to cancel this account? Blood!? Si, certo), to an empty flat.
* ‘Pizza – Seasonal Recipes from Rome’s Legendary Pizzarium’, due out this month. It’s a slightly more modest title than that of his Italian book: ‘Il gioco della pizza – Le magnifiche ricette del re della pizza’, ‘The Game of Pizza – The Magnificent Recipes of the King of Pizza’. I’m guessing the former is an English translation of the latter, but I’ve not seen it yet, so can’t be sure.
Oh, and PS, when we did our course, we met a half-English, half-Italian guy called David who talked about opening a place called Pizzarium Sutton, in Sutton, south London. I’m not sure this ever happened. If I find out, I’ll of course post about it.