2011 will be an important year for Italian people. This year Italy will turn 150 (yeah, we're a relatively young country, despite the multi-millenary heritages). That's why I decided to write some posts in English, to celebrate this event and to tell the world how life here is, between pizza, pasta & mamma mia.
I'd like to dedicate this first post to... well, pizza. I know, it's rather stereotypical. But what the hell, everyone loves pizza. And when you talk about it, you inevitably think about Italy. Pizza is what I'd call "a triumph of simplicity". It's a flatbread, with some tomato sauce and olive oil. That's it. Yeah, I know what you're thinking: where's the cheese? Where are the pepperoni, salami, zucchini and everything else ending with an "i"? Pizza is a simple thing, while that "everything else" is just an extra. I saw many pizzas around the world, and I still remember a monstrous pizza I saw once in Cambridge, UK. It had everything - and with everything I mean everything - on it, in an inexplicable mix of ingredients. I think they even put some porridge on it. It might have attracted some Britons, but I clearly remember what me and my Italian fellows thought about it. We were disgusted, and we opted for some fish and chips instead (and that was tasty).
Anyway, we do have "monstrous pizzas" here as well (even though they are less monstrous than the one I saw). But let's start with the basics. If you'll have the chance to visit Italy, there are some things you'll need to know in order to enjoy a nice, truly Italian pizza.
First of all, learn these two names: marinara and margherita. These are the simplest pizzas available in all the pizzerias here. The first one is considered the first pizza to have been invented. It's a pizza with tomato, oregano and garlic. BAD BREATH WARNING. But it's great. The second one is probably "the pizza", the one that materializes into someone's mind when you say that magic 5 letters word. It's a pizza with tomato, mozzarella cheese (sometimes called "fior di latte") and basil. It's a classic, and you really must give it a try when you are here in Italy. Don't overstuff your pizza with extras: least is best.
There are also some other pizzas that are considered classic. One is called "capricciosa", with artichokes, black olives, ham and mushrooms. There's also a variant, called "quattro stagioni" (four seasons) with the same ingredients separated in four sectors of the pizza.
Then we have the diavola (she-devil), my favorite when I was a child. It's a margherita with spicy salami. And, finally, the "napoletana" with anchovies. Napoletana means "from Naples". It seems that in Naples it's not called "napoletana". This happens very often with some non-traditional pizzas: names change from region to region, sometimes from restaurant to restaurant. For example, there is a 50% of pizzerias that calls a pizza with tuna "tonno" (meaning, guess what, "tuna"). Another 30% calls it "nostromo" (boatswain) and the remaing 20% uses some unfortunate names. Sometimes you can find pizzas with some very funny names. I ate a pizza called "eat and shut up" once. You better be looking at the ingredients before the waiter comes. Bring a small dictionary, some ingredients are very peculiar and the waiter isn't always able to translate words like "melanzana" (aubergine), "rucola" (rocket) or "cozze" (mussels).
Before rushing into a pizzeria and sitting down, you really have to mind the cooking method your pizzeria is actually using. There are two ways to bake a pizza: the first one is with an electic/gas oven. It's frequently used in smaller, cheaper pizzerias and in take-away shops. It's the most diffused cooking method all around the world, but not in Italy. A pizzeria with an electric oven is considered a low-quality one, and you have to pay attention to that aspect, cause they are often tourist traps. You wanna eat an Italian pizza in Italy, right? Look for pizzerias that has a "forno a legna" (wood pizza oven): sometimes you can read a "forno a legna" sign at the entrance, or simply take a look inside and look for the enormous oven. You won't find pizzerias with the (in)famous juggling chefs. It's a myth: they won't twist the pizza in the air, but passing it with some very fast movements from the left hand to the right hand. It's always nice to watch, but not so picturesque and acrobatic. And if they do acrobatic stuff, it's just for touristic purposes. Sorry about that.
Then, in Italy there are various types of pizzas. The first one is the standard, traditional pizza. It's has a relatively crunchy crust, and it's basically the most common pizza in Italy. The second one is the Neapolitan pizza. As you can assume from the name, this is the pizza from Naples. And it's the best one. It has a soft, bready, thin crust, high and puffy edges (called "cornicione", eave), a special quality of tomatoes (San Marzano tomatoes) and it must respect some quality standards. Unfortunately the only town in Italy where every single pizzeria makes Neapolitan pizzas is Naples. In every other town (except for some towns around Naples) you have almost no chances to eat a Neapolitan pizza, unless you know the place. In Monza, where I live, there are some 90 pizzerias. One of them makes Neapolitan pizza, another one makes a "quite-Neapolitan pizza" and the remaining 88 make standard pizzas. I'm not saying that the traditional, crunchy pizza is bad. But if you're traveling X miles to come here, you might want to eat the best pizza of your life. Also, we do have take away pizzas. These are always baked in electric ovens, cut in squared pieces and they're extremely thick. Take away pizzas are good, but you can't say to have eaten a pizza in Italy by eating just a take away one. It's a totally different experience. Moreover, pizza is definitely a social experience and take away pizza doesn't capture this essence.
Finally, we DON'T have pizza fast foods here. You won't find Pizza Hut, PizzaExpress, CrappyPizza or whatsoever. To be honest, we do have a pizza fast food. It's called Spizzico, and it's average. An Australian guy told me once it was "delicious". That made me think they must have some really bad pizza chains down under.
So enjoy your pizza here. And remember to ask "il conto" cause they will never bring your bill if you don't ask for it!