The Art of Roman Pizza: Learning From Italy's Famous Baker

Gabriele Bonci has been called "the Michelangelo of pizza"—and now anyone can sign up for his classes

At age 14, Gabriele Bonci bought a scooter. For most Romans, this is a normal rite of passage, but for the teenager who would become Italy's foremost celebrity baker, it was the beginning of his career. "I'd drive that scooter all over town to bakeries. My father would have to drag me home," Bonci reminisced. Surveying his massive frame, it's difficult to imagine anyone dragging him anywhere.

Clearly, the early start paid off and by 17, Gabriele was working in restaurant kitchens. He had early dreams of becoming a cook, penning a middle school term paper on the topic. His penchant for baking ultimately led him to open Pizzarium, Rome's most revered pizza al taglio (pizza by the slice) joint, in July 2003.

Pizza by the slice is a ubiquitous street food in Rome, and in some venues, like Pizzarium, it has become an art form; accordingly, Vogue consecrated Bonci "the Michelangelo of pizza" some years back. Unlike the round personal pizzas one might encounter at a sit-down pizzeria in Rome, pizza al taglio is a rectangular or oblong slab of dough that is cut into quadrilateral slices and sold by weight. While the approach (to dough, for example) varies from place to place, the basic formula calls for baked flatbread with toppings. In Rome, the quality of ingredients for both strata have seen an unfortunate decline over the past decades as the costs of artisanal flour, cheese, and cured meats have risen sharply, leading them to be replaced with industrial substitutes.

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Bucking the trend, Bonci uses high-quality ingredients, including flour from Mulino Marino, a Piedmont-based mill that stone-grinds heritage grains. Bonci mixes the flour with water and sourdough starter (of which he has an assortment, the oldest dating back to World War I), salt, and oil. He works the dough gingerly, then leaves it to rise for up to 72 hours. When baked, the result is a thick (but not dense), bubble-riddled foundation upon which ingeniously paired ingredients are laid to rest.

Toppings change daily, even from one hour to the next, and in an average day more than 20 types of pizzas may grace Pizzarium's countertop. Varieties range from the classic, exquisitely simple "rosso," topped with a slick layer of olive-oil-rich tomato sauce, to unusual or creative combos: on a recent trip, I tried slices with Serrano ham and robiola; pumpkin, speck, and caciocavallo; cured rabbit, raisins, and fennel; escarole, olive, and pancetta; potato and mozzarella; and chickpea spread and mortadella. The daily toppings are impossible to predict, but expect to find playful permutations of cured meats, cheeses, and seasonal produce.

His appearances have become such a phenomenon that they have even spawned their own theme song, which borrows its refrain and infections tune from Brazilian pop group As Meninas.

Pizzarium also sells bread and an assortment of fried snacks like suppli', balls of rice mixed with various fillings. There is also a selection of quality products made by others: Vitaliano Bernabei's porchetta from Marino, Mulino Marino's flour from Cossano Belbo, and plenty of craft beers from Italy and Belgium, including Birra del Borgo's Enkir, a beer born from a collaboration between Bonci and the brewery.

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Katie Parla is a food historian and sommelier based in Rome, Italy. Follow Katie on her blog,, and on Twitter at @katieparla.

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