A Guide to Italian Pizza
Whether you're planning a holiday in Italy or you just want to impress an Italian friend, this hub could be useful for you. By the end of it you'll be ready to tuck into an Italian pizza like a real Italian, whether you've been to Italy or not.
Going to a pizzeria in Italy offers the most convenient and generally cheapest remedy to a rumbling tum. You can have your whole meal in one quick decision without having to 'um' and 'ah' over the menu, juggle numerous side dishes, salads, wonder whether that pasta dish will really fill you up ....with a pizza your answer's on a plate. You know where you are with a good old pizza.
It's also the cheapest option - you can get a pizza Margherita for four Euro ($5.90/£3.60) in most places (big cities in the north might charge six Euro, in the south perhaps less). It's also one of the best places to soak up the Italian atmosphere - most people (especially young people) go to pizzerias to eat out - it's just so convenient and the atmosphere is laid back. Of course, if it's a Saturday night you may see a few women dressed up to the nines but really, anything goes in a pizzeria. You wouldn't get turned away if you turned up in your pyjamas although you may get a few raised eyebrows.
So, to business. You're in Italy and you want to try pizza - what do you look for? A restaurant? No.
A restaurant (ristorante) may well serve you pizza but there's no guarantee they'll have the correct oven and if you're very unlucky you may end up eating a frozen one or a warmed up one - well, you might just as well have stayed at home in front of the telly if that's the case. No, you want a proper pizza and when you find a pizzeria you're guaranteed it, the wood oven vouches for that - you can't miss it, it's a great stomping hot thing that you'll see as soon as you walk through the door - you'll know then that you've come to the right place.
In the big cities and even in some of the smaller ones the menus are often translated (albeit somewhat inaccurately) but that won't give you a real idea of which are the best pizzas - a bit of insider's knowledge is useful for that. Rather than basing it on my own personal tastes I'll give you a quick list of the pizzas that never fail to be on the menu. They're the most popular ones and as there is a big turnover you're guaranteed fresh ingredients for the topping. I'll also point out some that might give you a nasty surprise or which may not live up to your expectations. There are some toppings that can catch tourists out.
As a rule, a good pizza shouldn't have to fall back on its topping anyway - it should stand on its own two feet. In Naples, I'm told, there are pizzerias whose pizza is so good that they have only two toppings - tomato and tomatoes with mozzarella. Having tasted Napoletan pizza I can well believe it - the topping just gets in the way of the pizza base.
So where's that pizzeria?
Pizzerias aren't hard to find in Italy - unless you visit some village tucked away in Tuscany, you'll often find one on every street and on the street where I live there is the grand total of four pizzerias. Some are considered better than others (it all depends on the pizza base - the thinner and crunchier, the better) - it's a good idea to ask passers by to recommend one to you or failing that you can judge yourself by how crowded it is. If you're the only customers in then I would try and do a runner while no one's looking - then again if it's Monday evening at seven o'clock you're likely to be the only customer anywhere.
Ah, that's another thing - there are set times for eating out in Italy - very few people will eat out before 7.30pm, most will start going out at 8pm or later and that's just in the north of Italy - further south it gets later still where it's similar to Spain in that people have their evening meal at around ten in the evening. Now, I don't know how eating times are where you live (and I'd be curious to know) but as someone who, by seven in the evening, is already clawing at the fridge in desperation, for me it would be pure torture.
But in Italy fashion even dictates what time you eat.
So, the point is, if you want to see a bit of Italian life, soak up the atmos and so forth you're better off going out at no earlier than eight o'clock - you'll have to wait longer for your meal to be served but they'll be a more colourful painting of life to observe whilst you're waiting.
Now, what's on the menu?
This is one of the simplest pizzas - simple yet effective and it does the trick when you're peckish. It's just tomato sauce with mozzarella and to finish off either oregano or basil or both on top - most of the time they forget to put it on anyway. Anyway, the idea is that the three ingredients represent the colour of the Italian flag - red (tomatoes), white (mozzarella) and green (basil or oregano). The story goes that the Margherita was 'invented' in 1889 by the best pizza chef of Naples for the Queen Margherita and he chose the colours of the Italian flag to impress her. She was impressed with the taste as well by all accounts and so the pizza took her name. The alternative story is that the chef had a cat called 'Margherita' who was steamrolled. Sorry - just forget that one. Whatever the truth is this pizza is always top of the list on the pizza menu in any pizzeria in Italy.
It's generally not that filling as pizzas go and a lot of Italians order it when they're not very hungry. Of course, if the pizzeria is in Naples then it's a different story because the all important base is what counts; a Margherita in an Italian pizzeria abroad might be more filling as they may cheese it up a bit to keep the customers happy. If you're in Italy though you may find your tum's still kicking up a fuss at the end of it.
This one comes after the Margherita on the menu as it's another one of the cheaper ones. The Marinara is useful to order as a floating pizza or something to chew on while you're deciding but if you're hungry it won't likely fill you up as your only dish - it's just tomatoes, garlic and basil or origano (if they remember to put it on).
Next on the menu is the Napoletan pizza. In some places it might be called the 'Pizza Napoli' - whichever way it's called it's just a Margherita but with anchovies added. If you don't like very salty fish then avoid this one.
This one's a stinker - it's just tomatoes, mozzarella and lots of onions. There's usually a sprinkle of parmesan cheese on it too. 'Puglia' as you may already know is a region of Italy right in the south where the 'heel' of Italy is. By all accounts, this pizza has little to do with the real pizza from Puglia as the base would actually be made with potatoes in Puglia but it has Puglia's name and nobody raises any objection. This is another one that's not particularly filling but very tasty if you like onions. Perhaps not the best option if you're going on a romantic meal.
This one's similar to the 'Pizza Napoletana' - it's with tomatoes, mozzarella and anchovies but it has olives and capers added too. Be warned, it's not always the case, but in some places, if they go heavy on the capers and anchovies or more likely forget to rinse off the excess salt, it can be super salty and you might end up feeling as though you've munched on a plateful of raw salt.
Pizza Quattro Formaggi (Four cheeses)
This one will always be on the menu - I don't think I need tell you what the ingredients are. It also comes with the faithful old tomato sauce but in Naples they often omit it and in the North they'll sometimes ask if you want it 'white' (bianca) which means without tomato sauce.
The cheeses can vary depending on the pizzerias own choice but there's sure to be mozzarella and parmesan on there. Most of the time they put on gorgonzola (a soft blue cheese) and the result is very smelly and delicious. As a Quattro Formaggi regular I can tell you that finding a good one is an art in itself - the best pizzeria will not necessarily do the best Quattro Formaggi because they're sometimes stingy with the cheese and if you're a cheese fanatic you need a place that empties a month's supply of cheese on the pizza. It really is luck of the draw but if you have a cheese craving you can order a pizza with just one cheese (like Pizza Gorgonzola) as you're sure to get a generous amount. Phew! There's a lot to consider when ordering in Italy - it's not that there's a national cheese shortage, it's more that, as I say, a real pizza should have a good base and the cheese quantity is less important. Not for all of us though - rights for cheese lovers!!
Pizza Quattro Stagioni (Four Seasons)
Don't get this one confused with the above whatever you do - if you're a vegetarian you'll be in a mess. The ingredients for this one vary sometimes but there should be cooked ham, olives, artichokes, mushrooms (and of course the all faithful tomato sauce and mozzarella). Some recipes include sea food but I've never seen that carried out in a pizzeria. Whatever, it's popular and always on the menu but is sometimes considered rather disappointing as pizzas go.
Calzone - great big sock
Mmmmm - sound tasty, eh? If you want the good old pizza then don't order this one - it only fills up half a plate as well and there are often some disappointed glances from tourists when the 'Calzone' arrives. It's named this way because of its resemblance to a filled sock. Yum. The ingredients are usually ham, tomotoes and mozzarella.
You've guessed it, it's a vegetarian pizza. This one is always on the menu these days and the vegetables they put on will be aubergines, courgettes or peppers or maybe even all three. The veg might be grilled or fried - it depends on the pizzeria. This one is a safe choice for vegetarians but in other areas of cuisine the Italian interpretation of 'vegetarian' is a bit loose - you may find pieces of ham in some so-called vegetarian dishes so it's always best to check before you order. You're safe with this pizza though - it's vegetarian friendly.
Pizza ai Peperoni
Watch out for this one -this isn't the 'peperoni' as you may know it but with peppers.
And here's some you may find on the menu, you may not...
Pizza with chips
In the last few years pizza with chips (French Fries) has taken off. Once upon a time the Italians turned their noses up at the idea but now they're warming to it. Good thing too.
Pizza with Nutella
The choice of pizzas is really branching out these days - in fact, perhaps into the realms of the bizarre. This one's not for the traditionalists and is not something you'll see on many menus but it's on the menu at the pizzeria near me so I thought I'd include it. I haven't tried it yet though - I'll leave that to you.
Pizza or pasta?
Usually if you go to a pizzeria you want pizza but there may be someone who wants to try pasta. Try to persuade him to eat a pizza if you can - the pasta dishes are generally not so filling, cost more and the biggest problem is that, as the pasta is prepared by a different chef to the pizza, your pasta and pizza aren't going to arrive at the same time.
This won't be a problem if you're a couple or you're with friends and family but if it's a work gathering or you're with someone you don't know very well, it may be a bit of a chore. As he sits waiting for his pasta you'll be chewing awkwardly on your pizza while he drools and tries to avert his gaze from your plate - you'll offer him a piece of course but he'll very politely refuse and so you limp on with your meal, trying to make conversation and praying his pasta arrives (and it'll arrive after you've finished your pizza and the whole thing will start all over again).
Perhaps I'm being over anxious by pointing this out but it's just something to bear in mind. Of course, this is a problem that seems to be singular to Italy as I've never encountered it in Italian pizzerias abroad. This isn't likely to happen in the Italian pizzerias in England where, as you can imagine, anything that might bring about even mild social awkwardness is vigourously avoided.
However, there is hope for pasta lovers because if you really want pasta but don't want to eat on your tod you can try the 'spaghetti al cartoccio' which is offered in nearly all pizzerias. It's spaghetti with seafood that's cooked in the oven, encased in a pizza base. That one arrives with the pizza and is in some ways better, because you get pizza and pasta for the price of one. It's usually not too pricey either, about 8 Euro or upwards ($11,80/£7) although some places only do portions for a minumum of two people so you have to convince someone else to share it with you. It's well worth it though because it is really delicious.
Some people ask for spicy olive oil (olio piccante) with their pizza - you just drizzle it on and it gives it an extra 'hup'. You can also ask for the bread basket if you're particularly hungry or if you think your humble pizza won't fill you up - bread's included in the service price as well. Also grated parmesan cheese is always on hand for anyone who wants it; it's usually given with pasta dishes but you can ask for it if you want to cheese up your pizza a bit.
And with your pizza...
So, what do you drink with your pizza? If you're an adult and you're not teetotal than beer of course. I say 'of course' because here, it's taken for granted. It has to be beer and a very fizzy, 'blond' one at that. Italian rules (the unwritten ones) are quite rigid about it - wine is a no-no.
Well, ok, they're getting a little more open minded and of course you can order what on earth you like but if you do notice raised eyebrows when you order wine, you'll know why.
The best beer is that on tap of course (alla spina) and usually they offer Nastro Azurro or Peroni but if you're lucky you may find Menabrea which is fairly similar in taste but is generally considered a lot nicer by beer connoisseurs. If you are a beer connoisseur you'll appreciate this one because it's won numerous awards. And according to the website bottled Menabrea is exported to the USA - so there you go. (Have you gone?)
But why beer with pizza? Not many Italians know the answer - that's just the way it is and most of them accept it. Some say that the yeast in beer is an ideal accompaniment with the yeast in the pizza. There is another interesting theory that I heard recently (that will upset a lot of Italians from Naples) which says that the beer and pizza partnership is tied to the fact that pizza originated from ancient Egypt 6000 years ago with the making of 'pita' bread. That's a long story which I shan't go into here but suffice to say that beer was an important part of the ancient Egyptians diet and was drunk with the all important 'pita' which went on to become pizza. Apparently even in today's Egypt, although the beer is now alchohol free, it's still drunk with pizza. Having never visited Egypt I can't vouch for that but I know it's the case in Italy. Even though there is, albeit minor, dissention amongs the ranks, you're going to hear the clinking of quite a few beer glasses when you go to an Italian pizzeria.
Two desserts that you'll always, always find on the sweet menu in pizzerias are profiteroles and tiramisù and most likely they'll be homemade. As both are popular they tend to be the best sweets as they're always fresh. Profiteroles might be with dark chocolate or white chocolate - the dark one goes quicker obviously.
Tiramisù literally means 'pick me up' - understandably as it's made with a good dose of strong coffee. It might pick you up and drag you down again if you're already full when you order it - it's made with mascarpone cheese, a very rich cheese, so if you're already quite full you may explode after that.
Another thing you'll always find on offer is ice-cream (gelato) but personally, I wouldn't recommend it in a pizzeria as, unless they make their own, it tends to be from a tub. If you want a real Italian ice-cream you'd do better to get it from a 'gelateria' - they're generally planted near the pizzerias anyway and besides, a walk in the fresh air afterwards will do you good.
Once you've had your dessert you'll be asked if you want a 'digestivo' - that's something that's supposed to help you digest the whole meal. I say 'supposed to' because I don't believe it does a thing, but it'll taste nice and make you sing just a little bit louder if you've had more than one beer with your pizza.
The most popular one is 'Limoncello' - made from, you've guessed it, lemons. It's very sweet and very strong. It's also very tasty and quite addictive. You'll find plenty of variations on this (although you may have to ask for them) - there's Meloncello (made with melons) and various others. The further south in Italy you go, the more choice you're likely to find and the tastier they'll be. But you'll find the classical Limoncello all over Italy.
Another popular digestivo is 'Amaretto di Saronno' but this generally excites a firm 'yuck' response from anyone not used to it. There's also 'Grappa', perhaps similar to vodka in its taste - usually if you knock back one glass of that you'll have steam coming out your ears and nostrils. It's a clear liquid though which shows it at least has no artificial colouring in it (as a lot of them do) but the fact is, when you've got to this point you don't really care about artificial colouring anymore.
Actually the coffee would come before the digestivo but you can do it in whatever order you like. It's not a 'must' of course but most Italians have a coffee after their meal (again for digestive reasons). A cappuccino after a meal is another no-no (it's strictly breakfast material) - be warned, ordering one after a dinner may cause great amusement.
Finally the bill...
You'll be charged a 'coperto' - that's your service charge or the price for the table (although you have to leave the table behind I'm afraid). It's usually 1,50 euro per person but can be more although it shouldn't be much more. Tipping just doesn't exist in Italy and though tourists are likely to do it, very few Italians ever would.
As regards Italian pizza abroad - well, with the amount of Italians emigrants these days it's not going to be too difficult to find something that represents the real pizza.
In the UK there's the chain pizzeria 'Pizza Express' which is very faithful to the original Italian pizza even though the toppings are quite Anglified.
Similarly, you can find very nice pizza in Thailand provided it's from a real Italian pizzeria - the chain pizza outlets in Bangkok are decidedly dodgy and could give you tummy ache - it's much better to stick to the local Thai food which is excellent.
French pizza is also very tasty but perhaps not always faithful to the Italian version as they tend to 'Frenchify' it - the result is very nice though but rather more expensive.
Now, don't get the idea that I go to every country I visit hunting out a pizzeria in a pizza frenzy - quite the opposite, I usually blend in with the locals and eat in their places but when you go out with a group of people for some reason the majority usually ends up plumping for pizza. So I've ended up widening my pizza repertoire against my will, in fact, perhaps I'll write another hub entitled 'Down with pizza! Can't we change the group menu, please?'
Ok, sorry, I shouldn't complain when I'm lucky enough to be able to eat out - but you know how it is, when you eat something all year round you sometimes like a change. For those of you who crave pizza in every place you go to you're sure to find it in practically any country you visit but more likely than not you'll find a warmed up or frozen one that's not anything to write home about - I strongly recommend you try the real local cuisine instead.
If you're not fussy about having an authentic Italian pizza, as I expect you already know, you're really very spoilt for choice. The first example that springs to mind is Pizza Hut and although I wouldn't stick my nose up at it a lot of Italians might. I have to concede that it doesn't bear a great similarity to the original Italian pizza but it certainly does the trick of filling you up. With some leap of the imagination it may bear a resemblance to Sicilian pizza which has a thicker base but in all truth it does need quite a leap of imagination. Nothing against it of course - I wouldn't turn it down if I was hungry.
So that's your lot - any questions?
So off you go to find an authentic pizzeria then and failing that, there are plenty of reasonably priced flights to Italy these days (just as long as they're not heading for Venice - I'll explain that one another day).