Roman-style pizzas, dappled with mozzarella and squash blossoms, or onion and anchovies, are beautifully thin and crisp. You can buy them by the slice to snack on any time, but these pizzas are so airy and weightless you can sit down and put away a whole one on your own, easily. In her new cookbook Tasting Rome, author Katie Parla renders all the beauty and complexities of Roman food culture, from cacio e pepe to pizzas, with photography by Kristina Gill.
The book is particularly exciting because it doesn’t lean on any wistful Roman cliches. At one point, Parla notes that the majority of Rome’s restaurants aren’t, in fact, run by sweet old nonnas but by South Asian and North African immigrants, and she calls them the “under-celebrated backbone” of the industry. The introduction is a love letter to a dusty field in the center of the city that used to be the Circus Maximus. It’s a good indication of the book’s sensibility: research-driven, clear-eyed, and often drawn toward less obvious pleasures.
Parla, an American who works as a journalist and culinary guide in Rome, first shows you to how to make a few of those classic Roman-style pizzas, then follows the lesson up with a mesmerizing, super-weird local pie that’s cooked upside down, then flipped to serve. It sounds goofy, and it certainly breaks from Roman tradition, but the technique is inspired by superstar baker Gabriele Bonci. Bonci runs Pizzarium, the city’s most famous slice joint, where he sometimes serves an upside down pizza with nothing but onions and fresh thyme leaves. It’s so delicious that no one misses sauce or cheese.
“In the past decade, since Pizzarium opened,” Parla explained to me over the phone, “Rome has seen this whole new approach to baking, spearheaded by Bonci. He’s been critical in bringing back heirloom wheats and cold fermentations, and his pizzas are now part of the baking panorama.”
The recipe calls for einkorn flour, an ancient variety that was easy to find and slowly yawned to life in a cold, 12-hour-long fermentation. By the time I shaped it, gently stretching it out to fit a sheet pan, it was riddled with little air bubbles I couldn’t actually see on the surface, and it felt unusually smooth and floppy. That’s both the nature of the einkorn flour and of this dough’s high-hydration (a Bonci hallmark), which seemed annoying when I was repairing a hole I’d torn here and there, but which made the pizza an absolute delight to eat later on: light and airy throughout, tender, with an almost malty sweetness.
Bonci developed this upside-down method for occasional cooking events and baking classes, Parla told me, because it’s an unexpected way to infuse flavor into the crust. It’s also fun.
As a bonus, no pizza stone or any other equipment is required, and cooking the pizza upside down can make the most of a home oven’s uneven heat from below. When I flipped over the pizza to serve it right side up, I found that the onions had steamed and caramelized at the edges, making the top dewy, just like a sauce though not soggy. Meanwhile, the bottom of the dough, open to the oven, got evenly golden brown. The pizza wasn’t lacking anything at all. Next time, I might play around and add some olives or a little cooked bacon, or—in keeping with the theme—banners of anchovies.
Pizza al Contrario, or Upside Down Pizza
Adapted from Tasting Rome (Clarkson Potter) by Katie Parla and Kristina Gill
Makes one 18- by 13-inch pizza
For the dough:
¼ teaspoon (3 grams) active dry yeast
1 ⅔ cups (400 grams) water
4 cups (500 grams) einkorn flour, plus more for dusting
2 ½ teaspoons (15 grams) sea salt
2 tablespoons (28 grams) extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for greasing
For the toppings:
4 small to medium-sized white onions
5-10 sprigs fresh thyme
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
To make the dough:
In a small bowl, sprinkle the yeast over 1 ½ cups of the cold water and set aside until the yeast dissolves. Measure the flour into a large bowl, then add the yeast-water mixture and mix with your hands until the flour is hydrated. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and rest for 20 minutes at room temperature.
Add the salt, remaining water, and the olive oil to the dough and mix by hand or with a wooden spoon until just combined. Shape roughly into a ball and place in a greased container or bowl. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and set aside in the fridge for six hours.
Remove the bowl from the fridge and uncover. Keeping the dough in the bowl, use a wet hand to lightly pinch one edge of the dough and pull it upward and outward, then attach it to the top of the dough. Give the bowl a one-eighth turn and repeat the fold until you’ve rotated the bowl a complete turn. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and return it to the fridge for an additional six hours.
To make the pizza:
Remove the dough and allow it to come to room temperature, about 30 minutes. In the meantime, prepare your toppings. Thinly slice the onions, wash and pick the thyme, and mix together in a bowl with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper and spread the mixture evenly over the paper.
Preheat the oven to 500 degrees and position a rack in the middle. Invert the bowl of dough over a clean, dry, floured surface and gently help the dough detach from the bowl with your hands. Dust the top of the dough with more flour. Using your fingertips, carefully push and stretch the dough to about the size of the baking sheet, being careful not to tear it. (A few holes are all right; you can repair them later.) Transfer the dough on top of the ingredients, repair any holes, and then cover with plastic wrap and allow 20 minutes to rise at room temperature.
Bake until the dough is golden, about 25 minutes. Remove the pizza from the oven, allow it a few minutes to cool, then invert the baking sheet onto a large cutting board. Gently peel off the parchment paper and serve.