Everyone wants to try traditional pizza in its ancestral homeland, but getting a really great and authentic pie isn't as easy as rolling up to the first pizza shop you see and ordering a pepperoni with cheese. If you really want the traditional Italian pizza experience here are some things you need to know beforehand:
A Quick History of Pizza
Italy has such a long culinary past that many people are surprised to learn that pizza is actually a fairly modern invention. The word “pizza” essentially means pressed bread, and early precursors such as foccacia have been around for centuries. However pizza as we know it did not evolve until the late 18th century when vendors in Naples decided to add crushed tomato to their flat bread. The innovation caught on like wildfire.
The classic margherita pizza was invented by Raffaele Esposito in 1889 in honor of the visiting Italian Queen Margherita. The colors of the major ingredients, red tomato sauce, white mozzarella and green basil, are meant to echo the colors of the newly established Italian flag.
So what does this mean for pizza today? Although it's a culinary newcomer, Italians take their pizza very seriously with strict rules, regulations and of course, controversies.
Naples versus Rome
In the US you can debate over New York style versus Chicago style pizza, but in Italy the real debate centers on Roman versus Neapolitan. Although there are passionate arguments on both sides, the answer is really just about preference.
Neapolitan pizza, the original style of pizza, is known for its thick crust and simple, traditional ingredients. Real Neapolitan pizza is cooked in a stone, wood fired oven by a professional pizzaiolo. The center will be very thin and almost soupy. Naples is where you'll find the original margherita pizza made with fresh mozzarella di bufala.
Roman pizza is thinner and crisper, with a wider variety of toppings. It didn't really evolve until after World War II but has really taken off since then. This pizza is similar to New York Style pizza and can actually be found all over Italy. Here is where you'll find classic pizzas like pizza bianca (white pizza), pizza quattro formaggi (4 cheese) and pizza prosciutto e fungi (prosciutto and mushrooms).
How to Find a Good Pizza Place in Italy
So pizza is super popular, with locals and tourists alike. Unfortunately, this means that while it's easy to find pizza, it can be a challenge to find really good pizza. Lots of establishments catering to tourists are quick to pass off frozen or pre-packaged pizza with subpar ingredients.
To find a great pizza spot you need to remember that pizza is a night-time food. By law, pizza restaurants in Rome (and other places) can't fire up their pizza ovens until at least 7 pm. That means any pizza you can order before that time was either reheated or made in an electric oven and probably neither authentic nor very good.
Look for pizza shops that are popular with locals, not tourists. Steer clear of restaurants in heavily touristed areas. Chances are the pizza you find down a side alley is going to be much better than the stuff you can buy at that overpriced place next to the Duomo.
Once you've found your dream pizza spot remember that pizza in Italy is usually served uncut and is eaten with a knife and fork- not your hands. Nobody will yell at you for picking up a slice of pizza but you will definitely mark yourself as a tourist.
If you're out during the day and craving pizza, duck into one of the hole in the walls offering pizza al taglio (pizza by the slice). Cooked in long rectangular baking sheets in an electric oven and typically sold by weight (yes, you can by a pound of pizza), this pizza is not as tasty as the traditional stuff but makes a great cheap lunch.
Finally, remember that a pizza is only as good as its ingredients. Now get out there and enjoy.
Where is your favorite pizza spot in Italy?