The bell signalling the morning break at the school in Largo Beato Placido rings at 10:30. Across the street, pizza al taglio i Gemelli is prepared, the pizzeria’s long counter a patchwork of red and white margherita, uncle and nephew armed and ready.
We had been advised, and arrived at 10:20, the moment a tray of pizza rossa was being slotted into place, its steam clouding the domed glass counter. Years ago a man told me the best way to choose pizza al taglio – which means “pizza by the cut” – is to wait to see what is pulled from the oven. Just as I am settling on red, another tray of pizza with potatoes is pushed into position, the waft of roasted rosemary rises up from it enticingly.
We are not the only ones – at 10:20 there is already a queue: three men in flourescent coats, the same number in suits, a woman in trainers jogging on the spot, a man who looks like Phil Collins, a tiny couple who don’t need to queue, or ask, but are simply given il solito – the usual. With pizza al taglio, you say how much you want and the pizzaiolo cuts you a slice.
In Pizzeria Gemelli, they use scrapers like you might find in a toolkit, the sharp edge is ideal for cutting, the flat side made for lifting the pieces on to the scale so they can be priced by weight. A list on the wall gives the cost of each pizza by the etto, which is 100g. Hands are the best way to show the size you want – be firm. Having a small child in tow is often helpful in choosing, ensuring quick service and a free strip of pizza bianca, which my son eats as if he has been doing it all his life – which he has.
If you are taking it away, your pizza is wrapped, slices with soft topping folded back on themselves, or put in a box. For those eating straight away, the pizza half is wrapped in waxed paper, or if you have several squares, laid out on a wide piece which you take to the sidelines of the room, near Phil Collins. As we are taking our first bites, the school bell rings insistently in the distance. Less than a minute later, there is a surge of teenage bodies into the warm embrace of the pizzeria.
Rome is punctuated with forni, bakeries, and pizza al taglio shops. Some are small holes in the wall, from which queues curl like snakes, others, big cavernous places with high tables and stools on which to sit and eat. Pizza al taglio are different from classic Roman pizzeria, which serve round, thin pizza, the best of which have wood-fired ovens, and are only open at night. Pizza al taglio, however, are the real workers of Rome: constant, faithful, functional and providing the ultimate fast food to a hungry city.
“Everybody loves pizza,” the journalist Luciana Squadrilli reminds me. She specialises in pizza, and has lots to say about the alchemy of good dough, and the uneasy tug between the cost of good ingredients and keeping pizza al taglio accessible to all.
Everyone loves pizza. Everyone has an opinion too, it seems – some almost evangelical, about where to get “una buona pizza”, how deep or cushiony or crisp it should be, how many hours the dough should rise (2, 24, 72 … ), how much 100g should cost. As good as the pizza are the stories, the childhood memories of lips glisteneing with oil and salt, the lost pizzeria, a day of passion with a pizzaiolo, the marriage saved by a slice of margherita.
Armed with advice and a trusty Fiat Panda, I’ve taken the family to visit a dozen or so pizza al taglio recently – some which I knew already, some I didn’t. It was not for any proper classification; simply to see how they worked – to watch and taste. Some I will probably never go back to, others I certainly will: I Scalini behind La Sapienza University for potato and provola pizza eaten at the wobbling table in the cobbled backstreet with the soundtrack of student banter; the margherita with fresh basil mozzarella obediently melting into the residual heat at Orsini; the impeccable dough and fine toppings of Gabriele Bonci’s pizzas, the remarkable aubergine and pesto at Angelo e Simonetta; the thin, crisp and gorgiously red marinara at Supplì in Trastevere; the cushioned but firm-bottomed bianca at Forno Passi.
Like a sailor, I would like a pizza taglio in every port, or rather corner of Rome. Somewhere we will certainly return to soon is Gemelli – at 10:20, for the buona pizza – especially the potato and rosemary, but also for the life within, the air warm and thick with the scent of just-baked dough, the suits, and the shuffling, surging and gesticulating as people wait, order and then eat a slice.
Pizza with potatoes
Adapted from a Gabriele Bonci recipe. The 24-hour rest does produce a lovely dough, as does good-quality flour.
Makes 2 large pizzas, each serving 4
1kg pizza flour (0-grade Italian flour)
7g dried fast-action yeast
700ml tepid water
40ml olive oil
For the topping for 1 pizza
300g mozzarella, blotted and torn
500g boiled potato, grated
A sprig of rosemary, roughly chopped
Salt and black pepper
1 Mix the flour, salt and yeast in a bowl, then add the water. Stir into a soft, sticky, putty-like mixture. Cover the bowl with a clean tea towel and leave in a draught-free spot for an hour.
2 Scrape out the dough on to a work surface dusted with flour. With lightly floured hands or a scraper, pull the sides of the dough up and out, then fold them back over. Do this several times. Wait 10 minutes and repeat. Scrape the dough back into a clean, lightly oiled bowl. Cover with clingfilm and leave in the fridge for 24 hours.
3 Dust the work surface with flour. Cut the dough in half. Fold each piece several times as before. Then tuck into a ball. Leave to rest for an hour.
4 Set the oven to 260C/500F or the highest your oven will go. Gently stretch the dough on a floured surface. Use your floured fingertips to pummel and spread it out into squares, then lift on to a baking tray and press into the corners. Make a layer of mozzarella, then potato, sprinkle with rosemary, season with salt and pepper, then zig zag with olive oil. Bake for 25 minutes, or until the surface is pale golden and puffed with bubbles, the underneath darker and firm. Cut into slices and eat.
Rachel Roddy is a food writer based in Rome and the author of Five Quarters: Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome (Saltyard) and winner of the André Simon food book award. @racheleats