Pizza in Italy varies by region, just as all other Italian food does. While you may find pizza all across Italy, two cities are the best known for it—Naples and Rome. The pizzas of Naples and Rome may look similar, but there are some key differences. When most people think of pizza, they think of the thicker, slightly doughier (but not heavy) Neapolitan style pizza. Roman pizza, on the other hand, has a decidedly more thin and cracker-y crust. Both are delicious, and which one you prefer depends on personal taste. People accustomed to a “New York” style pizza may actually prefer Roman pizza, since the crisp crust is reminiscent of a New York slice.
Sicily also has its own variations of pizza, but these often lean towards focaccia-territory. What really makes a Sicilian pizza is the use of local ingredients, like semolina flour in the dough, or anchovies, capers, or breadcrumbs as a topping. Other regions, like Puglia and Genoa, are famous for their focaccia, which is similar to pizza but not quite the same. If you’re in a region that isn’t known for their pizza or focaccia, we would recommend sticking to the local classics, otherwise you risk pizza disappointment.
Neapolitan style pizza has a long history. The most well-known Neapolitan pizza is the pizza margherita, which has fresh tomato, mozzarella, and basil. Before the 1700’s, however, there were no tomatoes in Italy. Before then, a sort of flatbread was popular, but it didn’t look like the pizza we know today. Once tomatoes hit Italy (and the locals stopped being suspicious of the new fruit), it was discovered that tomatoes made an excellent pizza topping. Before pizza margherita, pizza marinara was the local specialty, so named because it was prepared by the wives of the fishermen who adorned a simple, fluffy dough with a garlicky, oregano topped tomato sauce.
Since then, many variations on the classic have been created and perfected. Pizza alla napoletana is very similar to pizza marinara, but with the key addition of olives and anchovies. Most Neapolitan style pizzas are topped simply, so as not to overwhelm the subtle flavors of the dough. Because the dough is so light and full of air, each bite releases a cloud of steam that is packed with flavor and aroma. You won’t find penne alla vodka on top of any Neapolitan pizza.
While round pizza is certainly the most well-known pizza, there is also another option—pizza fritta, or fried pizza. This pizza is very similar to a calzone. Quite simply, pizza dough is topped and stuffed with ingredients like tomato sauce and cheese, then folded over onto itself to make a half moon. The edges are sealed and the whole pizza is deep fried, resulting in a pizza fritta. This style of pizza is also very conducive to being eaten on the go.
Yet another variation on the fried pizza is the montanara, in which a round of pizza dough is deep fried then (traditionally) topped with just tomato sauce and pecorino, or maybe a little mozzarella. This style of pizza recently became popular in the United States, where often after it is topped it is quickly baked in a wood fired oven, which renders the crust even lighter. Montanara pizza is another popular street food.
Neapolitan pizzas are always personal sized. They are cooked quickly at remarkably high temperatures, always in a wood fired oven. The dough is soft and the toppings are usually saucy, so eating them with a fork and knife is a must. Make sure you order a few typical Neapolitan fritti to start, such as the frittatina di bucatini (like a rice ball, but with chopped pasta instead of rice), or potato croquettes. Try it at 50 Kalò, a fantastic pizzeria near the bay.
50 Kalò, Piazza Sannazaro, 201, Naples, Italy
Roman pizza has not been around for nearly as long as Neapolitan pizza. Like in Naples, a sort of flatbread was popular among the Romans, but it wasn’t until after World War II that Roman pizza as we know it today was really invented. Roman round pizzas are characterized by a strong, high protein crust with a long fermentation period. The result is a crisp, dense dough that holds up well to a variety of toppings. It might seem like the dough is heavy, but the long fermentation process actually starts breaking down the carbohydrates in the dough, making it easily digestible and very light.
Roman pizza toppings can vary. There are of course the classic pies like margherita and marinara, but there are also some uniquely Roman specialties. Capricciosa is one which has prosciutto, olives, hard boiled egg, and mushrooms over tomato sauce. The Boscaiola is another Roman pie, which has mushrooms and sausage over cheese. The thin, durable crust of Roman pizza can stand up to these different and delicious toppings. You’ll find these pizzas inside pizzerias, where you sit down at a table and order your own personal pie. Again, make sure you order a few fritti, like suppì, before your meal. Beer is also encouraged.
Rome is also well known for its pizza al taglio, or pizza by the slice. Instead of sitting down with a whole pizza, you can go to a bakery, choose from a variety of different pizzas, and have a slice cut off for you. The pizza is then weighed and wrapped in butcher’s paper, and you can take it to go or sometimes eat it standing up over a bar or sitting on stools.
The most basic pizza al taglio is pizza bianca, which is simply dough topped with olive oil and salt. Pizza bianca is often a little bit thicker than other doughs, so it is a little bit chewy and airy. This is a great way to appreciate the simple, delicious flavors of the pizza dough. Then there is pizza rossa, which is simply pizza dough brushed with a thin layer of plain tomato sauce. Pizza bianca and pizza rossa make for delicious breakfast snacks if you’re not into the typical Roman breakfast of a cappuccino and a cornetto.
Pizza al taglio toppings can vary from the plain to the more extravagant. La Renella in Trastevere makes an excellent, simple pizza topped with just olive oil and red onions, but they also make more rich pizzas such as the ever popular chicory and sausage. Pizza al taglio will often be folded in half, almost like a sandwich, and it is entirely acceptable to eat it on the go, though we recommend finding a piazza or a bench to sit and enjoy it.
Now, all you have to do is visit Naples and Rome, do a taste test, and decide which type you like best! You can also join us on a tour of Naples or Rome, where you’ll be sure to sample pizza as well as other regional specialties.
Julia Terranova is a Brooklyn born, Italian-American student with a love of Rome and all things Italy. She spends her time cooking for friends and reading as many cookbooks as she can find.