Maybe it was the pandemic that helped spur the increase in quality in pizzerias, with dining in restaurants prohibited for a long stretch of time in Italy and delivery pizzas became much more popular, and customers more demanding. For the point, at more than one pizzeria, I saw boxes and delivery pouches in action, something that I had hardly noticed in the past. And 50 Top Pizza, Guide to the Best Pizzerias in the World, a source I have used to some success on recent-years trips to Italy now has a section entitled, “Le 50 Migliori Pizze in Viaggio in Italia da taglio e asporto,” the fifty best pizzas for a trip for the Roman pizza al taglio and also take-out in Italy.
The reason for my past relative indifference with pizzas in northern Italy is that pizza is specifically Neapolitan in origin. It’s from Naples, that ancient port city near where many Italian-American can trace their origins. Because of these transplants, pizza became more readily available in U.S. than it did elsewhere in Italy. “Pizza, which was unknown in north Italy before the war” recounted cookbook author Marcella Hazan in her memoir Amacord. Pizzas was difficult to find anywhere outside of the Naples region through the 1950s. It came to those other cities with transplanted Neapolitans who traveled north to find work in the industrial boom after the war. Though pizza spread throughout the country, it’s quality rarely matched that of the pizzerias in the Naples area and Rome, where it took hold by 1960 or so, as Italy’s cooking is generally fiercely local. But pizza now seems to be a source of pride for many of the pizzerias I encountered had signs like “artigianale” and “lievito madre” – artisanal and sourdough yeast – stenciled on their windows along with detailed and often impressive sourcing of ingredients on their menus.
The crusts and the toppings, which are all what pizzas are, but those crusts, especially, can be tough to master and corners might be cut there and elsewhere. The crusts on the trip were generally excellent, fresh, flavorful and providing a sufficient base for whatever toppings, and those ranged from the Neapolitan style with a soft crust and raised crown, if not the near-soupiness in the center to bready, chef-driven sturdier version but with also a raised crown to a crispy, crusty nearly Roman pizza tonda in execution. Then the quality of toppings was first-rate, with impeccable burrata, tangy, rich buffalo mozzarella, fresh seasonal truffles, Spanish anchovies from the Atlantic, and 24-month aged prosciutto di Parma were a few of the ones I had along the way.
Though we didn’t make it to I Tigli in San Bonafacio, across the autostrada from Soave where we spent an early day touring and tasting at wineries, that is listed as the fourth best pizza in all of Italy by The 50 Top Pizza site, we had very good pizzas a couple times from place very near the villa we rented overlooking Verona, San Mattia Osteria, Pizzeria and Lounge Bar in San Mattia. So enjoyable, in fact, we picked up pizzas from there twice and one couple even ate there a third time. Its crusts were light and Neapolitan-like, and the pizzas were similarly light, fresh-tasting with excellent judiciously used ingredients, and this from just a local spot with ones like: fuori dal forno filetti di acciughe del Mar Cantabrico, mozzarella di bufala, and capperi di Lipari; baked anchovy fillets from the Cantabrian Sea off Spain, buffalo mozzarella, and capers from the island of Lipari in Sicily. We didn’t order enough pizzas each time, as ravenously as we devoured them.
The best I had was in Il Melograno in Trieste the next week, a entry in the Top 50 Pizza site, where endured exceedingly slow service – restaurant staffing shortages have affected Italy, too – but the food was so good. So good. The thin crust with a raised crown were delicious as were the toppings: mozzarella, a designated production of burrata, prosciutto from a named local producer and orange-infused olive oil. The entire meal was wonderful, even the different beet and baccala preparations we had to start, all helped by high-quality German beer then nearly local wine – Korsic Ribolla Gialla from the Collio that seemed to go well with everything – and finally the hometown Illy espresso at the end of a too-long stay.
Nearly as good was Al Cantonet in Conegliano, the town chosen to close out our trip because of its easy access to the airport in Venice. And Al Cantonet was chosen because I could not get into two nicer restaurants I had hoped to. I barely got into this place, too. With a very interesting, very artisanal menu with maybe fifty types of pizza plus a dozen or so from a special menu highlighting a type of local tomato that was season. It took me nearly a beer to make a choice which was pizza with burrata and 24-month-aged prosciutto di Parma. The presentation was rather unexpected with the pizza nearly unadorned except for smatterings of tomato sauce and mozzarella and a ball of burrata. The prosciutto slices were on a plate on the side. It was excellent featuring a crisp crust similar to the Roman pizza tonda, but larger in diameter, it seemed. I could see some of the open kitchen with dough portioned from a tray and put into a brick oven with a rotating bottom and two pizzaiolos working steadily. The burrata and prosciutto were terrific and far better than similar products I’ve had since I’ve returned.
Much cheaper, too. Pizzas ranged from €4 for the very simply adorned marinara or margherita pizzas to up to €13 or so. Not bad at all, particularly with dollar and euro now at parity. Even places were I didn’t order pizza kind of impressed, at least what I could see for the pies on other tables like at the humble Al Folgher also in Conegliano where I had top-notch prosciutto and fried calamari instead. Now might be a better time than ever to enjoy pizza in Italy.
The excellent Pizza Unica at Il Melograno in Trieste recently