He has been called the “Michelangelo of Pizza” by Vogue magazine. Anthony Bourdain encouraged people to abandon their children in order to come to Rome to sample his pizza. He is Gabriele Bonci, and he is the chef and owner of Rome’s fabled Pizzarium. Mr. Bonci recently made a rare trip to New York City to celebrate the U.S. release of his cookbook, simply titled “Pizza.” To promote the release, Mr. Bonci set up shop one afternoon at Paulie Gee’s in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, to make pizza for a few lucky souls, myself included.
Mr. Bonci considers himself a baker, not a pizzaiolo. The dough is the thing for him. He uses high quality flour and his own sourdough starters, one of which is at least one hundred years old. At the Pizzarium in Rome the pizza is available by the slice, but with a difference. Mr. Bonci makes large, rectangular pizzas, the dough weighing at least two kilograms. The pizza is cut into smaller rectangles and sold by weight, so the customer can decide how big of a piece they want. This traditional Roman style of pizza gives the customer the chance to sample more of the twenty different pies sold on a daily basis at Pizzarium. He uses high quality flour and his own sourdough starters, one of which is at least one hundred years old.
At Paulie Gee’s Mr. Bonci had to adapt to his surroundings. He was unable to bring his own starters so he used packaged yeast and the kitchen was only equipped to make smaller, round pizzas. He was undeterred, however, and the results were outstanding. Because he considers himself a baker he freely experiments with different toppings on his pizza. He estimates he has made at least fifteen hundred different combinations, and this creativity was on display at Paulie Gee’s.
Mr Bonci started the crowd out with zucca (pumpkin) and speck pizza, which was delicious. The pumpkin was sliced thin and cheese was drizzled over the whole pie. His funghi (mushroom), Taleggio and patate (potato) pizza was earthy and rich. The slices of potato were spread on the dough and then topped with mushrooms that had been sautéed and covered in melted Taleggio, essentially a robust mushroom sauce. By the time we sampled the broccoli and salsiccia (sweet sausage), it became apparent that Mr. Bonci could make just about anything work on a pizza. A lot has to do with using top quality, fresh ingredients. The main reason, however, is his crust. Even without his own starters his crust was sharp, toothsome and packed with flavor, and stood up to whatever he piled on it. As a surprise, Mr. Bonci made a vegan pizza. This was the “aha” moment. It was simply crust topped with fresh vegetables and it was a delight. Start with great crust and you cannot go wrong.
Saving the best for last, Mr. Bonci finished with a bietola (Swiss chard) and guanciale (pork jowl) pizza and dish of pork neck with pizza crust. This was an example of Italian cooking at its finest. The bright, punchy Swiss chard balanced perfectly with the hearty guanciale, resulting in my favorite slice of the day. For the pork neck, Mr. Bonci cooked it until it fell apart under the weight of a fork. The pork was covered in tomato and greens, full of vinegary bite, with a thin strip of pizza crust, charred black, served on the side. This was Mr. Bonci letting us know there is more to him than just pizza, and more than one thing you can do with pizza crust.
Mr. Bonci’s pizza was paired with several different Italian beers. The were selected by Katie Parla, who has written about Mr. Bonci for The Atlantic and helped put together the English language version of “Pizza.” Among the beers we sampled were Friska, a Belgian style white from Birrifcio Barley, Seson, a lovely saison from Piccolo Birrificio, and Re Ale Extra, an IPA from Birra del Borgo.
Gabriele Bonci is a bear of a man who cuts an imposing presence in the kitchen. He is a force of nature when he makes pizza. Every movement he makes is physical and he clearly puts his heart and soul into his food. Spend a minute or two talking to him and you discover he is gregarious, funny and immensely passionate about what he does, and chances are the conversation will end with a bear hug and a cloud of flour in the air.
I would never encourage you to abandon your kids. Take them to Rome with you instead and head for The Pizzarium . They will be forever grateful. Or you can check out “Pizza” and try making one of Mr. Bonci’s pizzas at home.