Panis Focacius Regit

Panis Focacius Regit

20130621_194952_dscn9930-4261221Pizza is not only one of the most popular types of sustenance in the multiverse, it is almost certainly the most contentious. There is zero agreement as to what constitutes good pizza, to say nothing of best in show. Furthermore, claims concerning pizza’s origins—both culinary and etymological—are (literally) infinite. For example, I have a friend who is otherwise a deliberate scholar who argues (sober or otherwise) with the zeal of a tea party activist crossed with a holocaust denier that pizza was invented during the early 20th century by Frank Pepe in New Haven, Connecticut. The fact that the word pizza was first documented in 997 AD in Gaeta Italy and that the first Neapolitan pizzeria was operating no later than 1830 only serves to accelerate his denunciation of all pizza origin myths save his as execrable apostasies.

My version of pizza’s provenance dates to the ancient Romans, who baked a flat bread with various toppings that they called panis focacius, from which the Italian focaccia descends and derives. Thus I was disappointed (to put it mildly) to find that Neapolitan pizza is currently the rage amongst Rome’s foodies. Indeed, while food bloggers squabble with the intensity of fourth rate theologians over the composition and even the ordering of their lists concerning where to find “the best pizza in Rome,” the autochthonic roots of this global cuisine are under siege in its place of origin.

Now I have nothing against well-executed pies from Naples (or their thicker Sicilian cousins for that matter) except that they are ubiquitous. And while providing needed culinary relief to large swaths of the gastro-wasteland in the U.S., Neapolitan clone pizzas are making ruinous inroads against their more ancient progenitors in Rome.

Pizza Bianca

The first thing to realize is that the best Roman pizza is not to be had in pizzerias—that is restaurants more or less dedicated to a sit-down dining experience. Bakeries dispense the best pizza in town just as they have since the locals kicked out the monarchy in 509 BC (focaccia being most likely of Etruscan origin). To get as close as possible to the Ur ‘Za (as Goethe might have phrased it), you need to sample pizza bianca, which is a sheet of leavened bread a scant inch thick with a crispy crust and chewy crumb topped with rock salt and drizzled with olive oil. I have eaten pizza bianca since I was a mere sprat of six years during my father’s sabbatical in Rome. My brother and I would buy a slice each from a local bakery on the way to school and then eat it for elevenses after morning recess. It was the only positive experience associated with our brief and violent brush with a Catholic education. Pizza bianca was so good that it almost made the frequent nun-administered beatings worthwhile.

Today authentic pizza bianca is almost exclusively the province of the gens Roscioli, a clan of Roman bakers, cheese mongers, deli merchants, and restaurateurs that have nourished Fulvia and Lucullus for a decade and a half in the Eternal City. They have three bakeries scattered around the city. Exactly which one of these outlets sells the best pizza bianca constitutes one of the many disagreements that I have with Roman food historian and blogger Katie Parla (see Agrodolce: Unfairly Besmirched by a Blogger). Ms. Parla plumps for Antico Forno Roscioli while I give Forno Campo de’ Fiori the edge. If you are serious about pizza, however, you should try each of them several times and make your own decision.

Forno Campo de’ Fiori

Address: Piazza Campo Dè Fiori, 22, Rome Italy— Get directions
Telephone: 06 688 06662
Hours of operation: Mon-Sat: 7:30 am – 2:30 pm, 4:45–8:00 pm; Closed Sun, Sat afternoon in July and August.
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Each Roscioli outpost has its specific strengths. Forno Campo de’ Fiori is an old-school Roman bakery that sticks very close to its knitting, which is why their pizza bianca is the best. This is also why their pizza rossa (see below) is better than that produced by the other Roscioli storefronts (a point on which Ms. Parla and I actually agree). The staff is not the friendliest, but they are efficient rather than brusque. Recently, the proprietors have sought to capitalize on the downstream products enabled by pizza bianca by opening a sandwich and dessert shop in the building that used to serve as a papal love shack at Vicolo del Gallo, 14. Here pizza bianca from next door is served split and stuffed with an assortment of meats, cheeses, and other ingredients. Keeping the sandwich side of the business separate from the bakery is probably why the pizza bianca remains the best in the city and why the derivative product has more variety and flair than the other Roscioli locations.

Antico Forno Roscioli

Address: Via dei Chiavari 21, Rome Italy— Get directions
Telephone: 06 687 5287
Hours of operation: Mon-Sat: 7:00 am – 8:00 pm, closed Sun
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Antico Forno Roscioli has been in operation at least since the 17th of August 1824 (the date of a Vatican census in which it was mentioned). The staff here is much friendlier and far more helpful than at the Campo location. Fulvia and Lucullus nicknamed our favorite counterman “domani e Dominica,” because he would always fix us with a reproachful look when we ordered a single loaf of bread on Saturday and wearily remind us that tomorrow was Sunday and we were obviously woefully undersupplied. Although the pizza here is slightly inferior to the Campo bakery, the Via dei Chiavari location has a much larger and better selection of breads as well as desserts and prepared dishes.

Panificio Roscioli

Address: Via Buonarroti 48, Rome Italy— Get directions
Telephone: 06 4467146
Hours of operation: Mon-Sat 7:30 am – 8 pm, closed Sun
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Up on the Esquiline Hill, Panificio Roscioli was where Fulvia and Lucullus went for pizza bianca when we first moved to Rome at the turn of the century. At the time it was a combination panificio and alimentari (bakery and small grocery). Fulvia named it “the nice lady’s bakery” because the all-female staff felt that she was somehow mentally disadvantaged since her husband handled all the shopping interactions. They always gave her free treats from behind the counter so that she would not starve while waiting for Lucullus to make purchases.

Recently, Panificio Roscioli has been completely transformed into an eat-in tavola calda. This type of metamorphosis usually sounds the death knell of an old neighborhood institution, but once again the Rosciolis are the exception that proves the rule. While the pizza bianca remains quite good, it is their other types of pizza that distinguish this branch of the family from the others. The crust is better and the toppings far more varied than any of their sibling locations (also, their prepared offerings of pasta, meat, fish, and many vegetarian dishes far outshine those to be had in the Centro Storico garrisons of the Roscioli empire).

Mago Tip: Avoid the fourth Roscioli location, Salumeria Con Cucina Roscioli at Via dei Giubbonari 21. This very high-end deli cum wine store cum restaurant was featured on one of Tony Bourdain’s food porn expeditions to Rome, followed by a predictable surge in foreign demand inelasticity that drove the locals away and added several billion dollars to the US trade deficit. The baked goods served at this location all come from Antico Forno Roscioli and there are multiple salumerie, formagerie, enotecce, and trattorie all within easy walking distance where you can buy excellent artisan products for far less. While MudGuide firmly believes that excess in the pursuit of culinary excellence is no vice, why purchase one superb meal when the same amount will buy you two or three of equal quality with very little additional effort on your part?

Pizza Rossa

The second authentic version of Roman pie is pizza rossa, which is Lucullus’ personal favorite. Pizza rossa sports a crust about half as thick as pizza bianca that is much crispier and topped with a smear of tomato sauce redolent of oregano and olive oil. Several millennia younger than its white relative, pizza rossa could not have been invented before the arrival of the tomato in Europe during the 16th century.

Antico Forno del Ghetto

Address: Piazza Costaguti, 30, Rome Italy— Get directions
Telephone: 06 68803012
Hours of operation: Mon-Thurs: 7:30 am – 8 pm; Fri: 7:30 am until an hour or so before sunset; Sat: Closed; Sun: 7:30 am – 8 pm
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While the Roscioli’s various emporia do a very good pizza rossa, the absolute best in the Eternal City is baked and dispensed to eager crowds of locals at Antico Forno del Ghetto. This quintessential Jewish establishment also supplies the spectacular rectangular bread rolls that grace the opulent tables of Casa Bleve (see Agrodolce: Rinascita Gastronomica). When we lived in the Ghetto, Lucullus’ late morning routine consisted of purchasing a slice of pizza rossa wrapped in wax paper to sustain him in the forever queue at the cattycornered Pasticceria “Boccione” Limentani (Via Portico D’Ottavia, 1; 06-687-8637) that had to be endured in order to purchase crostata ricotta e cioccolato (a form of crack disguised as a ricotta chocolate cheese cake).

Mago tip: If you happen to enter Antico Forno del Ghetto on a pizza rossa quest and find several feet of it at the counter being ignored by a crowd of locals, do not accept the counterman’s offer to place you at the head of the “take a number from the machine” queue. The locals are waiting for the next batch that will appear in ten minutes or so right out of the oven. Take your ticket and your place at the end of the line (more correctly the jostling, gesticulating mob jammed up against the counter) and then claim your reward from the six by one foot steaming sheets of pizza that will be hacked up and devoured in a classic Roman feeding frenzy.

Rectangle Pizza with Bounteous Toppings

The third type of legitimate Roman pizza, like its white and red forebears, is based on long rectangles of superb crust, but the Spartan toppings are eschewed for bounteous employment of fresh Roman produce supplemented with artisanal cheeses and meats that flow into the capital from throughout the provinces. This was the type of pizza served up at our beloved Plato’s, the sad disappearance of which is chronicled elsewhere (see Agrodolce: Infinitely Curved Pizza). Fortuna, however, has blessed Team Mago with a replacement.

Pazzi di Pizza

Address: Via Cola di Rienzo 42, Rome Italy— Get directions
Telephone: 338 8436183
Hours of operation: 8AM – 10PM every day
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20130522_dscn8949-5826746Fulvia noticed Pazzi di Pizza during a trans-Tiber excursion in the Prati neighborhood. Located at Via Cola di Rienzo, this little shop serves luxurious pizza by the slice in a bare bones setting. As its name implies, the shop’s proprietors are crazy about pizza and little else.  Fulvia’s came topped with grilled eggplant, béchamel, and tomato sauce. The oil-impregnated eggplant combined with creamy béchamel to produce a luscious mouth feel that was counterpoised perfectly by the slightly acidic tomato sauce. Lucullus sampled fresh porcini paired with buffalo mozzarella on the same tomato sauce, which was also excellent, but the best was yet to come.

Once we got outside and sampled a bite of each pizza, Fulvia nudged Lucullus, smiled, and suggested that he invert his slice onto hers and then cut the resulting ‘zawich in half with his trusty Swiss Army knife. It was the best and messiest pizza that we sampled during the entirety of our six-week stay in Rome.

Did I mention that the shop was rather sparse in terms of creature comforts? Well, there about four seats inside and a couple small tables on the sidewalk outside perched precariously close to the busy street. For drinks you have a choice of fat Coke, water, or beer in a self-serve refrigerator, which you are expected to drink sans glasses. Plastic utensils are in very short supply as are paper plates. Restrooms? Fuggetaboudit!

Traditional Roman Pizzeria Pizza

The fourth Roman pizza variant is superficially similar to the Neapolitan approach with respect to toppings. In fact, their individual names are identical: margherita, quattro formaggi, even (confusingly) Napoli. But the similarities vanish where the mozzarella meets the road. The crust of a Roman pizzeria pizza is cracker-like in thickness, cooked to a bubbly blackened splendor in the fraction of the time it takes to bake a Neapolitan pie.

Sadly, establishments that produce decent Roman pizza of this type that were semi-ubiquitous at the turn of the century are becoming hard to find. There are plenty of tourist traps turning out limp and insipid versions, but the real thang is a rarity; squeezed at the high end by Neapolitan invaders and drawn to the siren song of mass tourism cash flow at the low end. Nostalgic for our version of utility pizza, Fulvia and Lucullus undertook a dedicated search to locate and hopefully bolster this endangered species of pizza, the results of which are summarized below:

Il Grottino

Address: Via Marmorata 165, Rome Italy— Get directions
Telephone: 06 5746232
Hours of operation: Mon-Sun 6:30 pm – 11:30 pm
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We employed our diner density algorithm to locate Il Grottino in the Testaccio. Every time we passed this pizzeria it was packed, not with tourists or even Romans but with genuine residents of the 20th Rione.

A meal at a Roman pizzeria always starts with a fried course that usually includes stuffed zucchini blossoms, stuffed olives, and potato croquets. The fact that Grottino serves pre-frozen zucchini blossoms when fresh ones were available in the Testaccio market not a quarter of a mile distant made for an inauspicious start.

The other fried offerings turned out to be much better. Olive oscalone came in a crispy corn meal shell that housed briny, salty, semi-firm green olives filled with an unctuous liver stuffing. Eggplant fritters were also very good, competently fried with soft gooey mozzarella and chopped eggplant inside, although a bit more salt and some heat would have been welcome. In fact, a marinara dipping sauce would not have gone amiss.

The pizza was also something of a disappointment. The Napoli was a bit underdone and did not have enough anchovies.  The pie with eggplant and onions over tomato sauce was surprisingly the better of the two. Even though the watery ingredients should have made the crust less crisp than the Napoli, it wasn’t. The Poretti beer on tap was also a bit unusual, a nice lager that could have been a little colder. Moretti is better; still il Grottino serves a very generous glass of beer for five Euro.

Except for us, the place was filled with local clientele. This was one of the few occasions when our crowd composition algorithm failed us. We turned to history to guide the next leg of our search.


La Montecarlo

Address: Vicolo Savelli, 13, Rome Italy— Get directions
Telephone: 06 686 1877
Hours of operation: Tues. –Sat.: 12:00–3:30 pm, 6:30 pm – 1:00 am; Sunday: 12:00–3:30 pm, 6:30 pm – 12:00 am; Monday: Closed
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When we lived in the nearby Ghetto, La Montecarlo was one of our regular haunts. The pizza was good, the waiters irreverently funny, and the price couldn’t be beat. The place looked much the same when we arrived early enough to snag one of the outside tables that choke the little ally just off the Corso Vittoria Emanuele II.

Then a waiter brusquely threw a couple menus in our direction. Despite our years in Rome, Fulvia and Lucullus do not blend, so perhaps these were just a couple of stranieri sheets dispensed to any badly dressed aging hippies that might intrude on a Roman institution? But no, at least 50% of the tables were occupied by Romans who had also been tossed a menu or two. Lucullus was somewhat relieved, however, by the menu’s prominent bi-lingual admonition: “In order to operate the brick oven properly, please refrain from cell phone usage.” The establishment had obviously not lost its sense of humor.

The fritto misto was once again uneven. The zucchini blossoms were a bit greasy and needed more ‘chovy, while the olive ascolone were merely OK. The suppli were quite good owing to a very decent tomato-sauce-to-rice-ratio and a goodly sized central core of molten mozzarella. Tater croquettes were chewy but had decent flavor.

The first course was a tie with Il Grottino, but the pizza was much better. Lucullus’


Napoli had both good crust and the correct amount of char. It first showed up as a margherita and then returned (same za) with anchovies on top (not under the cheese as is normal but Lucullus probably scored more ‘chovies than he otherwise would have). The cheese and sauce were good, but a bit old, probably remnants from the previous evening.


Fulvia opted for a mushroom, sausage, and onion pie. Good char and crust given two liquid-producing ingredients, but the sausage was just OK and the onion slices were too large. Fulvia in particular was happy to see that La Montecarlo still supplies great VFM for its Centro Storico location, while Lucullus noted that over half the patrons were Romans—about the same ratio as in times past.


Pizzeria Remo

Address: Piazza Santa Maria della Liberatrice 44, Rome Italy— Get directions
Telephone: 06 574 6270
Hours of operation: Mon-Sat: Mon-Sat 7 pm – 12:30 am; Closed Sun
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We went digital for the third and last leg of our search, returning to the Testaccio based on Katie Parla’s advice. Given the unevenness of her recommendations, Lucullus was skeptical, but his unease began to dissipate with the first sip of the house red.  It was cold, fruity, and slightly frizzante right out of the tap—sturdy Testaccio plonk.

Ms. Parla cautioned against the fried appies, but in order to accurately assess Pizzeria Remo vis-à-vis Il Grottino and La Montecarlo, Lucullus ignored her suggested starter of beans. It turned out that the fritti at La Remo were the best of the three pizzerias we tried. The croquettes had a nice thin crust and soft mashies inside, while the zucchini flowers were not bad at all with a very decent, almost greaseless batter supported by a goodly amount of anchovies and lots of molten mozzarella. Lucullus judged that they were once again frozen, but well executed. Only the suppli did not measure up: the crust was too thick and they needed more cheese given their large cylindrical shape—sort of arancine wannabies.

We were three times lucky when it came to the pizza, however. Ms. Parla had steered us to what we had been looking for. The too large for the plate Napoli boasted perfect crispy, bubbly, charred crust with plenty of good fresh mozzarella, a very decent tomato sauce, and lots of nice plump salt cured ‘chovies. The requested and immediately supplied olio di pepperoncino (you have to spot these things yourself at a joint like this, but hey dude it’s the Testaccio ) was a great idea.


Domina uncharacteristically opted for pizza diavola with salami picante (probably sopressata), mozzarella, and tomato sauce. Fulvia added ground pepperoncino but mere mortals would probably be satisfied with the burn it had upon arrival. The crust was nicely but not overly blackened and held up very well to the ingredients. Another blast from our Roman past.

Never let it be said that MudGuide is ungracious or dishonest when it comes to the competition. Katie, I know I have disparaged you in the past, and may well in the future (actually the very near future, see below) but I will always be grateful to you for pointing us to Da Remo.

So far this review has concentrated on old school Roman pizza purveyors, but any serious student of this delectable mini-cuisine can find new and innovative approaches that build on classic foundations. To our enduring amazement, the best example of such culinary retrovation that we discovered during our stay in Rome came from a most unlikely source.

Sforno is a darling of Rome’s food bloggers. It is number one on Katie Parla’s list and home to “Rome’s best pizza.” Lucullus wouldn’t know. Sforno is a perfect example of the creeping Neapolitanization of Roman pizza. Evidently not content with turning their version of pizza into a globally dominant brand, the Partenopéi have retooled their ovens into instruments of culinary revenge for the conquest of their polis by Rome in the 4th century BC.

I am sure they produce superior pizza at Sforno, but it ain’t Roman pizza. Most of their pies could be found at any number of quality pizzerias in Naples. Furthermore the pizze speciali listed on their menu fall into two categories: 1) the Greenwich, composed of mozzarella, blue stilton, and port reduction is an international form of pizza more likely to be found in Tokyo, Dubai, or Los Angeles than anywhere in Italy; and 2) the cacio e pepe, an attempt to assimilate the famous Roman pasta dish using ice in the baking process to keep the sheep’s cheese fluffy, can only be described as a culinary provocation.

Bottom line: when Lucullus is in Rome, he eats Roman pizza. If you can face yourself in the mirror on the morning after, however, here are the Neapolitan interloper’s vital statistics:


Address: Via Statilio Ottato 110-116, Rome Italy— Get directions
Telephone: 06 71546118
Hours of operation: Mon-Sat 7:30 pm – 12 am; closed Sun
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So when Lucullus learned that Sofrno’s owners had invaded his beloved Testaccio, he felt compelled to act. It’s one thing to trash pizza tradition in the burbs at extremities of Rome’s A-line metro, but an “in your face” assault in the last redoubt of genuine ancient Roman cuisine (see Agrodolce: Unfairly Besmirched by a Blogger) simply could not be born. Lucullus marshaled his Montana contubernium of Artemis, Cincinnatus, Pliny the Younger, and Fulvia for a counterattack. We struck on a balmy day in late May muscling our way into 00100 Pizza just ahead of a gastronomic tour composed of a bunch of starry-eyed tourists from somewhere in the American Midwest whose idea of pizza was the vile product of national chains that have blighted our native land.

00100 Pizza

Address: Via Giovanni Branca 88, Rome Italy— Get directions
Telephone: 06 43419624
Hours of operation: Open daily: 11am – 11pm
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Inside the small establishment Lucullus was not surprised to find unappetizing and rather old take-out versions of Sforno’s Neo-Neapolis ‘za as well as equally unappealing precooked suppli. Lucullus was about to order a strategic withdrawal to a traditional Testaccio trattoria when his eye lit on a long list of interesting versions of something called trapizzino. Fearing that he was about to be lured into paying hard earned ducats for another vile interpolation along the lines of cacio e pepe pizza, he and Fulvia improvised a good legionary/bad legionary interrogation of the counter chick while feisty little Artemis held the Pizza Hut parade at bay.


Trapizzino, it turned out is an amalgam of tramezzino (sandwich) and pizza. Sforno’s co-founders determined that the four corners of a standard rectangular pizza pan produced perfect triangular pockets for stuffing. Next they modified a baking pan to produce many such doughangles in one go. Finally, they decided to stuff the trapizzini with traditional signature dishes from the Testaccio neighborhood.

A visibly salivating Lucullus ordered two of every trapizini on offer that day in a gastronomic coup de main that served to feed his starving troops while simultaneously pinching the milling mob of gastro-barbarians at the post. Team Mago then ostentatiously hauled its bounty past the looks of deadly envy cast by the Mall of America crowd and their enraged local gaugette to the park adjacent Piazza Santa Maria Liberatrice.

Our impromptu picnic consisted of the following trapazzini fillings: braised oxtail, chicken fricassee with bell peppers, tripe with spicy tomato sauce and mint, tongue with green sauce, garofolato (meat sauce with cloves), and coratella (lamb pluck with artichokes). The trapazzini dough was very good indeed, supplying a delicate crust with a fine chewy latticed crumb on the inside.  But the showstoppers were the variety and quality of stuffings. Every single one could have been served as a main course at a traditional Testaccio restaurant. There were even two veggie variants (chick peas and green beans) that left Artemis in a state of holier-than-thou satiety.

It was as if having breached the Aurelian Walls, the Sforno barbarians felt compelled to atone for their suburban culinary sins by inventing a fifth type of Roman pizza utilizing ingredients that have stood the test of millennia and standing foursquare in the take-away tradition of ancient Roman street food. Lucullus can only add “Nos cenare te salutant.”

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