You’ve probably heard that well-known cliche, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
It’s certainly one Stanley Tucci pursued with his friend Claudia della Frattini in his entertaining TV series Searching for Italy, though with a twist:
“When in Rome, eat as the Romans do.”
And off he goes in search of four iconic pasta dishes which he describes as staggering in their simplicity: rigatoni amatriciana, spaghetti cacio e pepe, spaghetti carbonara and pasta alla gricia. I very much enjoyed wandering around Rome with him and regretted not knowing about some of the restaurants and chefs he visited. Having recently spent a week in Rome, I wished his TV series had arrived in Australia before I’d departed.
And it sure showed up my ignorance of Roman food history.
I didn’t know that pasta alla gricia, the most ancient of the four pasta dishes contains just guanciale (cured pigs’ cheeks) and Pecorino Romano (Roman sheeps cheese); that amatriciana builds on gricia by adding tomatoes (which arrived in Italy in the 15th century after Columbus’ discovery of the New World); that carbonara adds egg yolks, parmesan and pepper and that the deceptively simple cacio e pepe combines just four ingredients: pasta, Pecorino Romano (70%), parmesan (30%) and ground black pepper.
He takes us to Armando al Pantheon for rigatoni amatriciana, to Pommidoro dal 1890 for spaghetti carbonara and to Bistrot 64 where Japanese chef Kotaro Noda (yep, he’s Japanese) shows how to make a perfectly creamy cacio e pepe “not overloaded with flavour”.
He spends time roving around Testaccio, where he learns about quinto quarto, (the “fifth quarter”): the offal of slaughtered animals. I well remember visiting this down-at-heel slaughterhouse area before the old market was demolished a decade ago and the modern covered market was installed.
And he talks about Rome being a working class town and how the poor made legendary dishes using simple cheap ingredients such as tripe in trippa alla romana and globe artichokes in carfiofi alla giudia.
At Bar San Calisto in Trastevere, another working class area until a couple of decades ago, he and Claudia indulge in maritozzi alla panna (brioche filled with cream) and bombolini alla crema (doughnuts filled with custard), admittedly one of my wicked morning go-to’s when I’m in Italy.
But there was one Roman food he missed: pinsa!
Yes, pinsa. Not pizza.
“Have you tried pinsa?” asked my Roman friend Sue. “It’s the healthy version of pizza, lower in calories, carbs and fat and piu digeribile (more digestible), halfway between a focaccia and a Neapolitan pizza.”
She was keen to introduce me to this Roman flatbread and offered to take me to La Locomotivo, a restaurant outside the walls set in a lovely leafy garden.
On the menu the word pinsa is described as originating from the Latin pinsere (to press or flatten) created by baker and pizzaiolo Corrado Di Marco in 2010. Oval in shape, it combines three differrent flours: soft wheat, rice and soy mixed with a small amount of sourdough making for a soft crumb with a crunchy outer crust. “An explosion of flavour that won’t weigh you down”, says Di Marco.
Much to my surprise on my return to Sydney, I discovered that pinse are available in my home town at Casa Mia Osteria in Newtown where chef Valerio Boncampagni has been making them for the past two years.
A Roman by birth, Valerio told me he was introduced to pinsa at Campo de’ Fiori in 2018 by a friend who showed him how to make it.
I’d like to give you a recipe but if you want to make the real Pinsa Romana, you need to allow it to ferment for up to 72 hours. For the dough, Valerio uses Di Marco’s flour mix. For every 1 kg of flour, you need 0,8 litres (80 cl) of water for a well hydrated dough (the water must be chilled to refrigerator temperature). Add 2-6 g of dry yeast, 25 g of salt (20 g for a softer Pinsa), and 20 g of extra virgin olive oil. It should be left to rise for a long time, from 24 to 72 hours.
Valerio bakes his pinse twice, slipping in the base for five minutes at a lower temperature to let it bubble and get crusty then he removes it and piles on the ingredients. I have to admitthat I enjoyed his Pinsa Margherita more than the one at La Locomotivo which was burnt around the edges with cherry tomatoes just plunked on top.
Other toppings at Casa Mia Osteria include Nduja (spicy salame, tomato sauce, caramelised red onion and ricotta), Anchovies (tomato sauce, capers, black olives, origano, stracciatella cheese), Meatballs (pork sausage meatballs, tomato sauce, stracciatella cheese and basil oil), Smoked Prosciutto (pumpkin, provola cheese and mushrooms) and Ham (Double Smoked Ham with Asiago cheese and truffle honey).
I’ll defintiely be returning to try the Nduja and the Smoked Prosciutto toppings.
Serenditously, Valerio mentioned that Corrado di Marco, who is curently visiting family in Perth, will be in Sydney for Fine Food Australia next month.
I guess that means that pinsa will become the big new thing Down Under: if you’re an Uber Eats subscriber on Sydney’s northern beaches, you can now order one here.
If you live in Melbourne, check out Pinsabella which opened a few months ago in St Kilda.
And just this week I discovered that Woolworths is selling a pre-packaged Pinsa Romana though I doubt it has the crusty lightness and flavour of Valerio’s.