Despite what you may have heard, not all pizza is created equal and it actually IS entirely possible to have a downright terrible meal in Italy. Part of this has to do with “fast” food, and I’m not talking about McDonalds.
You may know the places I’m talking about; think of restaurants or bars with pizzas, pastas, and other dishes that come ready to eat within the minute you order them. Not to say all of these places are bad, but they definitely don’t compare to the slowfood, traditional, Italian pizza dining experience.
Luckily, there are a few rules you can follow to spot a real, traditional pizza place in Italy – the kind of place that remains imprinted on your brain so that even months later you can still taste the sweet tomato sauce, gooey mozzarella, and the delicate perfume of basil.
Rule 1: Wood fired oven
A real traditional Italian pizza is made in a woodfired oven. In Italian this translates to, “forno a legna”, so look for that before deciding to try a place out.
Rule 2: Leavened dough over a long period
The dough, in order to be easily digestible (Italian’s are obsessed with digestion if you haven’t noticed from other articles like this one), must be leavened for at least 24 hours. This helps break down some of the starches and renders the dough nice and fluffy instead of rubbery. You can usually spot this right on their storefront window, written as “pizza a lunga lievitazione” or a variation of those words.
Rule 3: Throw out all the rules for “Pizza a taglio”
Pizza a taglio is a common street food in Rome and other large cities. These are the large square panned pizzas with various toppings for you to choose from. They are cut, weighed, and wrapped up for you to take them on the go. Pizza a taglio is a completely different thing than the pizza you would get in a pizzeria, so it doesn’t follow the same rules. Pizza a taglio definitely has its place in Italian cuisine, but don’t get it confused with it’s cousin, the round, Neapolitan pizza made to order.
Rule 4: Pizza is one per person
Obviously, no one is going to kick you out if you decide to split a pizza, but if you’re visiting a truly authentic place, the pizzas will be one size and the intention will be one per person. This often throws Americans who are used to ordering a large pizza for everyone to share, eating slice by slice. A true Italian pizza experience does not work like this my friends.
Rule 5: The pizza comes out of the oven, and directly onto your plate
And by this rule, I mean that the pizza isn’t cut for you. This is important as Italians don’t take pizza “by the slice” (unless you’re talking about rule #3) but as one per person (see above) you are expected to cut it yourself, and eat it as you see fit.
Rule 6: How DO you eat that pizza?
This is up to you. Italians usually eat it with a fork and a knife, at least to get started. My husband is partial to cutting it in 8ths, then continuing with the fork and knife eating a bite from each “slice” at the bottom. The effect is kind of like a donut, and then he switches to eating with his hands, folding each piece in half so the cheese and toppings stay put.
Rule 7: Pizza goes with beer – not wine
Not many people know this, but the pizza + beer ritual that exists in the US was actually started by Italians. This practice debuted after World War II when establishments were given the go-ahead to serve alcoholic beverages, which soon began to apply also to pizzerias. Before this time, pizza was always served with water, but now for the first time, there was a choice of beer or wine. Considering that pizza was a lower to middle class food, it didn’t make sense to combine it with a higher class beverage like wine. Thus, beer and pizza became a standard combination. Today, wine is sometimes on the menu for those who don’t follow this rule or don’t like beer, but in a really traditional pizza joint, you won’t find a bottle of vino in sight.
Rule 8: They have a sticker proving they are members of the AVPN or The Association of True Neapolitan Pizza (Associazione Vera Pizza Napoleana)
This association is no joke; they legitimately have something called the Pizza Olympics which is basically a three day contest to determine the best pizza maker (pizzaiolo) in the world. If you see this famous logo, you know that the restaurant is following strict and traditional rules about pizza making (check out their site and logo here).
Rule 9: San Marzano tomatoes
Now, this isn’t ALWAYS true, but many really good, traditional pizza makers ONLY make pizzas with San Marzano tomatoes. They are the perfect sweetness for a delicious sauce, and you’ll likely see the name “San Marzano” or even the cans stacked in back in a really good pizzeria.
Rule 10: Just because tourists say it’s good, doesn’t mean it’s good
I am thinking of a specific place in Florence where hordes and hordes of American students and tourists go to eat every day because they heard it’s “the best”. They take their pizzas and sit outside eating them, drinking wine (see rule 7), and never even bothering to try another place during their travels. I promise you, this is actually a terrible pizza place that real Florentines wouldn’t ever step foot in. It pays to ask locals where they get their pizza, and to avoid spots that just happen to have thousands of reviews (in English especially) on TripAdvisor. I am not saying all such spots are bad, but I have seen people go to Italy, eat ONLY at this one place, and come back not understanding the first thing about good pizza.
How about you? Have you found pizza success in Italy?