Not since Sullivan Street Bakery’s Jim Lahey popularized six-foot slabs of pizza bianca in the 1990s has Roman-style pizza been such a hot topic. New styles, new shops, new schools, and even new flour mixes are reshaping New York’s pizzascape, putting a post-Neapolitan focus on lightness, airiness, and above all, crunch.
Is Roman-style Pizza Really Easier to Digest?
Truth be told, we don’t know anyone who eats pizza because it’s light and delicate and easy to digest. That’s what rice cakes are for. But to hear new-wave Roman-style pizzaioli tell it, you’d think their pizza was practically spa food. Actually, what they say is that their pizza is easier to digest thanks to the high-hydration, long-fermented dough it’s made from. How high and how long? PQR on the Upper East Side boasts a 96-hour fermentation period for its 80 percent hydrated dough. Not to be outdone, the folks at Mani in Pasta say they’ve got those numbers beat with a 110-hour fermentation period and a whopping 87 percent hydration. And then there are the special flour mixes. Camillo restaurant in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens uses a blend of wheat, rice, and soy, as do the boys at Mani in Pasta, who also toss a little semolina into the mix. This, they claim, also aids digestion. A corollary claim: If pizza is easier to digest, you can and you will want to eat more of it. Whether that’s a bonus for the pizza buyer or the pizza seller depends on the size of your pizza budget. In any event, there’s no denying that the abovementioned pizzerias’ product is crisp and light and a lot healthier-looking than the droopy slabs we used to get at Ray’s on Sixth Avenue and 11th Street. But are the digestibility claims backed up by science? For answers, we turned to our nutrition guru, adjunct associate professor Guy Crosby of Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who moonlights as the science editor of Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street Kitchen. Here’s what he had to say.
Pizza made with dough from refined wheat flour that has high hydration (80 percent to 85 percent) will be somewhat easier to digest than pizza made with normal levels of hydration (60 percent to 65 percent) because the increased water will result in more extensive gelatinization of the starch granules (when the pizza is cooked), which will make the starch easier to digest.
Longer fermentation (96 hours) will also make the pizza easier to digest because the natural enzymes in wheat flour will break down (digest) more of the large gluten proteins into smaller proteins.
3. Rice Flour
Adding rice flour to the wheat flour will also make the pizza easier to digest because rice flour has less protein (about 6 percent by weight, versus 13 percent in wheat). In regular dough, the protein envelops (coats) some of the starch granules, making them more resistant to digestion. With only half the amount of protein in rice flour, the protein will not protect the starch as well from the digestive enzymes, so the starch will be easier to digest. Plus, the starch in rice flour contains only about 2.5 percent resistant starch by weight (starch that is resistant to digestion in the small intestine), compared with about 10 percent in wheat flour.
4. Soy Flour
Adding soy flour to wheat flour will make the pizza more difficult to digest because soy flour contains between 38 percent and 51 percent protein, depending on how much fat has been removed from the soybeans before milling into flour. More protein makes the starch more difficult to digest, as explained above. Plus, soy flour contains between 10 percent and 18 percent resistant starch by weight, which is not digested until it reaches the large intestine where bacteria can digest it. This tends to produce more gas. In general, legumes like soybeans contain more resistant starch than cereal grains like rice or wheat.
So there you have it, folks. Long fermentation, high hydration, and rice flour — all good. But depending on the percentage of soy flour they use, your friendly neighborhood Roman pizza (or pinsa) shop may not be doing your gut any favors. And that’s before the sausage and meatballs.
*A version of this article appears in the April 30, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!