Tag Archives: gabriele bonci

Bonci, Baladin and cats

Look for this sign - Pizzarium

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.

Counter at Pizzarium, Rome

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.

Pizzarium pizza bianca

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.

Pizzarium pizza

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.

'Nduja suppli at Pizzarium

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.

Flour for sale at Pizzarium, Rome

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.

Open Baladin, Rome

Pizzarium, Via della Meloria 43, 00136 Rome.
Metro Line A; station: Cipro



* ‘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.


Filed under Ale, beer, Pizza

Requisite Bonci post

If you’re based in Rome, and have a blog, and that blog talks about food, there seems to be an unwritten rule that at some stage you have to talk about Gabriele Bonci and his pizza. Far be it from me to break that rule.

A couple of weeks ago, I did Bonci’s two-evening pizza course. The day after the first class, I wrote a somewhat fevered draft about the experience. It wasn’t very level-headed (the working title was “Making pizza and taking the pizz”. You get the picture). The day after the second class, I wrote another piece. It was more level-headed, but little more than notes. So this is my third attempt. Hopefully it’ll be an honest appraisal, and sufficiently level-headed. (That’s not always my forte.)

Anyway. The course was a birthday present. A somewhat generous one, as it was really flipping expensive.

For those who don’t know who Gabriele Bonci is, here’s a little background. He’s a pizzaiolo (pizza-maker). He’s an celebrity chef. He has an acclaimed hole-in-the-wall pizza a taglio (pizza by the slice) place behind the Vatican called Pizzarium. He also recently opened a bakery, Panificio Bonci, nearby. He’s a big bloke, like a rugby player who’s enjoying the clubhouse more than the pitch.

Bonci 1

I first met him, briefly, at Open Baladin, the wonderful beer bar run by Italy’s biggest microbrewery. It was last autumn, and I’d been experimenting with making bread with chestnut flour. When I chose a chestnut beer (Borgo’s Castagnale), I got chatting with a friend who works in the bar, and mentioned I’d made the bread. She called over Bonci, who looked at a photo on my phone, made some encouraging noises, then wandered off to resume his duties (his outfit provides the bar with its breads). My friend said he’d suggested I do one of his courses, which seemed like a good call – except my Italian was non-existent then. After a year or so, I thought it might be ok – after all, a course is not just about the spiel, it’s about the demonstrations. And what I really wanted to learn was about how to handle very wet doughs (his starts with about 750g water to 1kg flour – ie 75% – then he adds more to bring it up to about 85%).

It was a foolish assumption, however, as my Italian really wasn’t adequate. Never mind the fact that Bonci talks in a Romanesco growl. Though I did manage to get more of an understanding of what Bonci stands for. I’d already investigated him a little when I first heard of Pizzarium, but broadly his message is much along the lines of my feelings about food: a rejection of industrial production; a blend of knowledge and instinct; an emphasis on  seasonal and traditional ingredients (eg he uses a natural leaven and einkorn flour at Pizzarium; we used easyblend yeast in the classes, as it’s nominally easier); no fear of innovation.

Bonci’s greatest achievement, perhaps, is the latter. The Italian obsession with food involves: eating; talking enthusiastically about food; patronising foreigners by default with the assumption we don’t cook and know nothing about food; and telling everyone that there’s only one way to do something in the kitchen. That way is the way your mum, or grandma, did it. Broadly, Italian food culture is anti-innovation. And yet Bonci does innovate and he’s made a success of it. He’s not afraid to experiment with the toppings of a pizza. Or indeed to variants with filled or upside-down pizzas. On the second evening he started by making a load of meat-fests: a leg of lamb, some garlic and rosemary all wrapped in pizza dough; ditto with chicken legs; ditto with sausage meat and artichokes. All baked slowly. (Though this technique is actually steeped in traditional too. Apparently, it’s an old rustic way of cooking: in an era of communal village ovens, it masked the cooking smells of your meat so your neighbours wouldn’t come blagging.)

Bonci 3

Anyway, it’s a solid, encouraging message: experiment with pizza dough, toppings and fillings.

For a Brit, and someone who’s always experimented in the kitchen, this is no great revelation but the enthusiasts crammed into the Tricolore kitchens on Via Urbana for the course, this message was received like the Sermon on the Mount. Indeed, there’s a profound level of sycophancy around Bonci. US Vogue called him “the Michelangelo of pizza”, and it’s impossible to write about him without reiterating this. I’d just like to point out now, however, that this is clearly hyperbolic bollocks. Very, very few people could spend years lying on rickety scaffolding painting vast expanses of ceiling, or wrangling with hefty chunks of marble and making incredible works of art like The Deposition or the Pietà. But anyone can learn to make pizza. Indeed, Bonci’s message is just that – try it yourself! Practise! Experiment! Enjoy!

I wonder whether he’s embarrassed by the “Michelangelo of pizza” thing. He seems like a decent guy, though he probably can’t help getting caught up in  the whole rock-star thing. For example, his recipe book, The Game of Pizza, is modestly subtitled Le magnifiche ricette del re della pizza: “The magnificent recipes of the king of pizza”!

His message is great and his pizza is quality, but the course itself was somewhat farcical, especially considering the not inconsiderable cost. Sure, it included eating and taking away as much decent pizza as you could hope to eat, but it really falls down with the location, format and facilities.

The Tricolore kitchens are tiny, enough room realistically for about six or eight students. Yet a dozen are crammed in. We each had about a square foot of work space, but mine was at the back of the class, in a busy thoroughfare. Sure Italians like the huddle more than Brits (who have this strange concept of “personal space”), but paying hundreds of Euros to get in the way of the staff was a bit shit. I mentioned this inconvenience, and the manager moved me for the second evening, but then I was right in the way of one of the main ovens so had to keep moving again. Apparently, it’s hard to find a decent teaching space with enough ovens in Rome. Really? In the capital city of a country that prides itself on its cuisine, there’s no better teaching space? It’s hard to believe.

This has turned into more of a ramble than I planned, so I think I need to summarise.
Bonci and the Bonci pizza courses.
Great overall message (you can do it!).
Solid technique demonstrations (don’t be afraid of 85% hydration; I’m getting there…).
You make a lot of pizza, you eat a lot of pizza, you take home a lot of pizza.
Expensive for six hours of lessons.
Especially expensive considering the tiny, totally inadequate space.


Filed under Pizza, Rome