A couple of my pizza or pizza-related ambitions for this trip didn’t come to fruition – a trip to the vaunted Pepe in Grani pizzeria and a chance to try the intriguing pinse. The former just felt like too much of a mission, as it’s in the sticks, a two-hour drive or doubtless convoluted journey by public transport from Rome. The latter because the place I’d been told about by Hande Leimer, not just the expert sommelier of Vinoroma, but a great knowledge on Roman eating, was closed when we passed by around midday on our way back from closing our Italian bank account. Or attempting to close it. I’ll eat my hat – okay, I’ll just nibble it a bit – if that cheque ever arrives at our UK address.
Shame really, as pinse are a kind of rare Roman and Lazio relative of the pizza, made with a dough based on grains other than wheat, such as millet, oats or barley, in a mix with older wheat varieties. Next time.
And it’s not like we were otherwise deprived.
The best meal we had was for Fran’s birthday lunch, which we celebrated at the excellent trattoria Da Cesare (Via del Casaletto 45, Casaletto/Monteverde Nuovo, 00151 Rome – at the end of the number 8 tram route). It’s an old favourite, via Rachel, Hande and her colleague Katie Parla, and the place where I had one of my most memorable meals ever, last year on Ferragosto – the public holiday that’s celebrated on 15 August, the day that’s considered the hottest of the year. For Fran’s birthday, we gorged ourselves on amazing fritti (deep-fried antipasti) and fresh pasta dishes, like these giant ravioli, accompanied by some great wines recommended by Hande (who told me the boss is also a sommelier and has a great selection). They do do pizza, though I’ve never tried it.
More basically though, we also ate a fair amount of pizza, including at one one of my favourite pizzerias. Da Remo (Piazza di Santa Maria Liberatrice 44, Testaccio, 00153 Rome) is isn’t a place that sells products that are entirely in line with my more ardent principles about long fermentation and whatnot, but it does offer a consistent, consistently tasty product: classic, thin Roman-style pizzas, nicely charred from their wood-fired oven and served an atmospheric slightly rough, rushed setting.
When we went there I had a pizza without tomato sauce – that is, a white pizza or pizza bianca. The topping was simply mozzarella, a few zucchine flowers and some anchovies and it totally hit the spot, washed down with dubious house wine.
Shades of white
The term pizza bianca can be a little confusing in Rome as the other thing it refers to is a simple snack of basic pizza dough embellished with little more than a slosh of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt. I love the stuff. Can’t get enough. Which is good, as it’s ubiquitous in bakeries and pizza takeaways, which bake long planks of it and sell it by weight. It’s such a popular staple with Romans, I suspect even mediocre outlets put more effort into getting it right.
I’ve got a recipe here, but I’ll be honest – while I’m pleased with it, it’s never quite as good as the real thing, baked in a proper commercial oven oven, cut from a massive plank, eaten on a Roman street. Or nearby beach (where the old biddy, above, was our neighbour), here topped with some caciotta di pecora (sheep’s milk cheese) and prosciutto.
Or as part of a simple lunch, here accompanied by burrata – not a Roman cheese, but from Puglia, and one of the most stupidly indulgent simple pleasures that exists.
We bought ours from Il Panificio Passi (Via Mastro Giorgio 87, Testaccio), which was basically underneath the flat we were staying in and fortunately does decent pizza bianca.
Rome, and Italy in general, is a great place for getting confused about the names of foods you might previously have considered yourself well-acquainted with. So while pizza bianca refers to both plain pizza, or topped pizza, pizza rossa refers to both pizza based topped with little more than a smear of tomato sauce, and the types of topped pizzas that have that sauce along with other elements.
Furthermore, Romans even use the word focaccia to refer to a very thin, crisp, crunchy bread that some trattorie serve in their baskets of bread that accompany every meal. I love it, though I didn’t take a photo when we had some as the waiter was so grumpy about my query it put me off my stride.
The plumper flatbread us Brits (and I suspect Americans) know as focaccia, meanwhile, can be simply called pizza alla genovese, as that style is from Genova/Genoa and Liguria.
It’s all six of one and half a dozen of another though, as arguably all flat breads can be considered focaccia. The name simply means “hearth bread”, bread cooked on the hearth, from the Latin focus. Furthermore, Wikipedia’s attempt at making a distinction between focaccia and pizza is clearly spurious as it says things like “while focaccia dough uses more leavening, causing the dough to rise significantly higher” and “focaccia is most often square whereas conventional pizza is more commonly round”, both things fairly disabused by the kind of Roman food mentioned above.
It’s also worth noting, no one really seems to know the etymology of the word pizza anyway, so sod it – if you want to make something thin or thick, round or square, with a hole in the middle or not, heavily topped or simply sprinkled with salt, I’m not sure it’s really worth any fuss if you call it focaccia or pizza. Or indeed pinsa, a word that some suggest has the same roots as pizza anyway. Or not. Chissa?