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

By Katie Parla

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

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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.

Bonci has expanded beyond Pizzarium, appearing regularly on the nationally broadcast television show La Prova del Cuoco. He teaches viewers--and the ditsy host--to make bread dough, pizzas, and sourdough starter. 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. La Prova del Cuoco propelled Bonci into the national spotlight and permits him to deliver his message of "good food for the masses" to a much wider audience.

His clientele is quite diverse. "At Pizzarium you will find the grandmother with her grandchild, laborers, tourists, a politician from the PD, all together. This is a portrait of society," Bonci says. And customers, regardless of pull or prestige, queue for pizza in a surprisingly civilized manner (by Roman standards) within the narrow confines of the shop. Despite his success, Bonci has no plans for expanding Pizzarium. At the time of writing, the shop was undergoing renovations, having been completely gutted to redesign the space. The most significant change? "We are stealing 15 centimeters from the storefront to give to the laboratorio in the back. People told me to make the shop bigger. I made it smaller!"

Rather than grow bigger at Pizzarium, Bonci has new plans in the works. He has been scouting for a space dedicated to baking bread and teaching apprentices. In mid-January, he began teaching bread and pizza classes at Tricolore, a bakery and cooking school in Rome's Monti district.

I attended the first pizza class, a two-day course that convened on consecutive evenings for three hours each. The first evening, we learned to make our own dough, following a recipe that was tailored to match the skill and equipment of home bakers, and on the second, we made pizzas with our dough. During the course, we were also given pre-prepared dough with which to experiment; one became pizza and the other, a Pugliese-style focaccia.

Classes are rather reasonably priced at 170 euros, which includes two days' materials, instruction, and pizza tastings—a small price to pay to learn from a master. When asked where his enormous success comes from, Bonci sits up straighter and points with an enormous finger over my right shoulder. Franco Palermo, legendary baker and Bonci's master, skulks past us, letting loose a subdued grin. "Him. It's all his fault."

Main image: Katie Parla

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2011/04/the-art-of-roman-pizza-learning-from-italys-famous-baker/73277/