The wild pizzas of southern Italy have to be seen to be believed
INTERNATIONAL - When do dough, tomato sauce, and mozzarella stop being mere ingredients and become pizza?
It’s a philosophical question that has divided chefs and diners for decades. For some, only pies in the Neapolitan and Roman styles are acceptable—Sicilian, at a stretch. Others extend the goal posts as far as Chicago deep dish.
But pizzas have been eaten in southern Italy for hundreds of years, and the rainbow of variations that can be found there—if you know where to look—rivals the rest of the world’s best efforts. Its proximity to North Africa means that flatbreads have been popular for centuries. Forget calzones—I’m talking about pizzas and pittas created specifically for breakfast, or marvels the size of entire tables, or baked spirals of crust begging to be torn into satisfying, savory chunks.
It’s not easy to discover these secret pizzas in the towns and villages; the economically troubled region doesn’t yet enjoy the number of tourists you find elsewhere in Italy. If you don’t speak Italian, you’re likely to struggle. When I go, I bring a guide: chef Francesco Mazzei, arguably the world’s leading ambassador for the cuisine of his native Calabria. His London restaurants include Fiume, Radici, and Sartoria, and he’s the author of Mezzogiorno (Preface Publishing, 2015), a celebration of southern Italian cooking. Even better, on this occasion he’s suggested bringing along Pierre Koffmann, the three-Michelin-starred French chef whose protégés include Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay.
We pile into Mazzei’s Maserati for a road trip that starts in Calabria, winds through Basilicata, and ends in Puglia—the three southernmost provinces on Italy’s mainland. Our quest? To find the wondrous pizzas of his home culture, some of which have never been seen outside the region. We cover 250 miles over four days, sampling perhaps 20 versions. I’ll ultimately gain five pounds. Koffmann will tell me later that it took him months to get the weight off. “The pizzas were so good, I kept on eating,” he says. “We think we know all about pizza, but I’m still surprised by the variety.”
Our journey starts in the rugged and parched province that provides the toe of the Italian boot. It’s a wild region of mountains and remote villages that bear little resemblance to the sophisticated cities and resorts most visitors know. Mazzei grew up here and learned to make gelato in his uncle’s shop. His family owns a tiny cottage on a hillside, with views across sun-scorched land to the Mediterranean. “Mezzogiorno means noon, half-day, or lunchtime,” Mazzei says. “But for me, it just means home.”
When we visit, a forest fire is raging so fiercely, the billowing smoke brings traffic to a standstill on the highway. We join other travelers standing outside cars, watching the flames in awe.
Mpigliati con le sarde
Deep in the countryside, at the Petite Etoile hotel in the town of Spezzano Piccolo, Gemma Constantino cooks us a salty, beautiful pie that looks like a bundle of bread roses. It consists of strips of dough coated with a mash of sardella, a rich fish sauce with red peppers, and pilchards (small, herring-like fish) cured with salt and paprika. The strips are rolled and stuck together before baking; to eat, you just tear off one of the rolls, which are great with an aperitivo. There weren’t many other patrons, but the staff laid out a feast for Mazzei, who’s a celebrity in the region. This pizza is a good example of the cucina povera of southern Italy, where humble local ingredients are used to create deeply flavored dishes. The sweetness of the bread and the spiky fish flavors make this a favorite of Mazzei’s. “You’ll find a lot of the best cooks we meet are women,” he says.
The team at Petite Etoile also serves up a pizza dough made with pig fat, layered with cime di rapa (broccoli raab), rolled a bit like a strudel, and then formed into a circle. Cullura is generally consumed cold and works as an everyday snack for farmers to take up into the mountains. “This is like a meal in itself,” Mazzei says. “We Italians usually don’t eat breakfast, so around 10:30 a.m., you are just ready for something to keep you going until lunch time.”
Pitta is a Calabrian flatbread that’s crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside; it includes toppings such as tomato, peppers, and herbs. We sample slices from one monster loaf served at a bakery in Castrolibero. When we arrive in the small town, the mayor and some residents turn out to greet us. About 25 people join us as we walk the narrow streets before finding ourselves in a room for a reception with pitta, cakes, and wine.
Pizza al taglio
This square pizza has a variety of toppings. It can be baked for a whole family to share, or bought by the slice. The one we devour is from the Pan Caffè in Fontanesi-Santa Lucia, near Castrolibero, where large groups gather to share giant pies. “This is street food at its best,” Mazzei enthuses. “You go out with your friends and eat all you can eat.” Although remote, the room is filled with happy diners dividing their time between the food and the soccer match on a big screen. Mazzei steps into the open kitchen at one end of the room and rustles up a spaghetti dish with garum, an anchovy paste, and basil. Several diners abandon the match to film and photograph Mazzei on their phones. The wine flows: It’s party time.
This half-moon-shaped treat, like a small calzone, is usually eaten cold, but we sample some fresh from the oven at a new roadside bakery, Il Forno dei Sapori di Martorano Vincenzo, outside the hillside town of Cerchiara di Calabria. It’s unusual to find such a spotless and well-equipped bakery beside a road out here, where your best hope in another country might be for a gas station with a convenience store. The owner greets us and describes his food with pride, though (as keeps happening) the actual chef is a woman. Falagones are popular in Calabria, where they’re allowed to rest so the juices seep into the bread. Parents pack them for a seaside trip or for children going to school. Ours are filled with Swiss chard, onion, and sweet paprika. Another one comes with roasted peppers, potato, and onion.
Also at Il Forno dei Sapori di Martorano Vincenzo, we discover prosciutto, caciocavallo cheese, and salumi sandwiched between two discs of pitta-style bread. It’s popular for parties or as an afternoon snack. “This is a simple pizza made with whatever you find in the fridge,” Mazzei says. “Every mum makes this for the kids.” I retreat to a corner to drink some crisp, light wine made locally from the ancient Greco bianco grape. The Calabrians are so hospitable, it’s an all-you-can-eat pizza fest, over and over.
Pasta da forno
Forget the “pasta” name; this is a pizza, and it’s popular for breakfast. There’s no tomato sauce atop the dough, no mozzarella, no onion. It’s just crushed tomato with salt, oregano, and olive oil. This one is served to us at the smart Panificio Mauro, also in Cerchiara di Calabria. (In Italian, panificio means bakery.) Traditionally, pasta da forno comes in a round, black tray and is served cold. The absence of sauce helps keep the base crispy, making this a perfect snack to carry to school or to work.
The heel of Italy is developing a reputation for its wines, and the food isn’t far behind. Again, we’re struck by the beautiful countryside and the ramshackle historic towns, such as Altamura, with its narrow alleyways and medieval city wall. And then there is Bari, a buzzy port city second only to Naples in the south of Italy.
We enter Di Gesù, a popular bakery in Altamura, to try this pizza with dough made only with semolina flour and baked in the city’s oldest oven. Di Gesù is a thriving business now but traces its history to a small shop that opened in 1838. You can sense the pride put into the bread as it’s pulled from the oven. This is thick, like a deep-dish pie, with tomato, green olives, and extra virgin olive oil. “People who haven’t spent time in the south of Italy don’t know how good the food is,” Mazzei says. “We have the best fish, the best meat, the best fruit. You don’t need fancy cooking or luxuries like foie gras. You need to keep it simple and cook from the heart.”
Basilicata, the instep of Italy’s boot, straddles two coastlines. It’s absolutely charming, for both its splendid beaches and ancient towns in which Greek, Spanish, French, and Arabian influences from the times of traders and invaders still remain.
Panzerotto di carne and panzerotto fritto
These two pie pockets look like calzones but smaller. The first is filled with minced pork and spices, then baked and seasoned with thyme, rosemary, and oregano while the melted fat is still hot. It’s popular as a street food and also comes in a fried version, panzerotto fritto. The one we wolf down contains rich strands of mozzarella, sweet tomato, and basil. Luale, a bakery on the edge of a shopping mall in Policoro, serves both. It looks like a fast-food joint, but the store is clean and efficient, the food rich and layered. It’s the kind of modern store you might easily pass as you hunt for charm.
We drive so deep into a forest, we feel certain we won’t find our way out, let alone the way to the small restaurant we’re seeking. But we do: Ristorante Pizzeria il Fosso is housed in what looks almost like a shack, yet it’s the most charming of the 20-plus spots we visit. Maria Ferrara is in charge of the kitchen, where children play inside and dogs run amok. Mazzei tucks into the strazzata, a fresh, crispy summer pizza with peppers, tomato, and extra-virgin olive oil, then delivers his verdict. “I love this place,” he says.