With an Assist From Per Se Vet Jonathan Benno, Can Roman Pizza Conquer New York?

Some of the flatbreads Jonathan Benno will be serving at Leonelli Focacceria e Pasticceria. Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine

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.

Pizza Preview

When Jonathan Benno unveils his multipronged restaurant project at Nomad’s Evelyn hotel this summer, he will dive headfirst into New York’s superheated pizza scene — even though he’s calling the flatbreads he’ll be baking there focaccia, and their point of sale is Leonelli Focacceria e Pasticceria. But Benno’s the first to admit that his version of focaccia is greatly influenced by some of Rome’s most distinguished pizzerias. Chief among them is Pizzarium, the gastrotourist mecca and leading light of Rome’s artisanal pizza al taglio movement, where baker Gabriele Bonci tops his naturally leavened crusts with an inspired array of fresh, seasonal toppings. “I thought someone should really do something like that in New York,” says Benno. He aims to incorporate that style’s open crumb structure, flavorful dough, and bountiful toppings (he’ll also make sandwiches with it). Whatever you call it, Benno’s focaccia is serious bread — 75 percent Italian 00 flour, 25 percent a blend of house-ground whole wheat, rye, and spelt — baked, like pizza al taglio, in steel pans in an electric oven. (Bonus pizza-nerd dough stats: 40-hour fermentation, 79 percent hydration.) He intends to serve it as he has enjoyed it in Rome: at room temperature. But upon request, he’ll happily heat up slices decked with combos like burrata, tomato, and basil, or squash with arugula, mint, and ricotta (pictured above). Even for a chef of Benno’s stature, culinary convention has its limits. “I’m not going to tell New Yorkers how to eat pizza,” he says. Or focaccia. Leonelli Focacceria e Pasticceria (7 E. 27th St.); July.

Roman Pizza Taxonomy

There’s a lot of Roman-style pizza out there today. Here’s how to tell your taglios and teglias from your tondas.

1. Pizza Bianca

Illustration: The Ellaphant in the Room/New York Magazine

What: Light and airy flatbread baked with sea salt and olive oil, which, in its dimpled raw-dough state, gets scrunched, then unscrunched like an accordion when shoved into the oven, only to emerge miraculously as a six-foot plank of golden bubbly goodness.

Where: Antico Forno on Rome’s Campo dei Fiori is famous for it, and in New York, so is Sullivan Street Bakery (multiple locations). Also at Grandaisy (multiple locations) and Caffe Marchio (30 E. 30th St.).

2. Pizza al Taglio

Illustration: The Ellaphant in the Room/New York Magazine

What: Pizza baked in steel pans and sold by the square or rectangular slice. (Tagliare means to cut; al taglio means “by the cut” or “piece.”) The trend today is toward thickish but airy pan pizza made from long-fermented, high-hydration dough. Also trendy: Deluxe toppings à la Gabriele Bonci’s Pizzarium in Rome.

Where: PQR (1631 Second Ave.), Mani in Pasta (multiple locations), My Pie (multiple locations), Sullivan Street Bakery (multiple locations).

3. Teglia

Illustration: The Ellaphant in the Room/New York Magazine

What: Teglia means baking pan and also refers to the food that gets cooked in it, such as, yes, pizza, sold whole or al taglio, by the slice. In other words, you get your pizza al taglio after it’s been cooked in teglia.

4. Pizza Tonda

Illustration: Elephant in the Room/New York Magazine

What: The anti-Neapolitan pizza in that its crust is round but rolled out extra-thin, emerging from the oven cracker-crisp with little air, no droop, and nary a cornicione in sight. Traditionally eaten for seated dinner, versus daytime’s al taglio on the go.

Where: Gnocco (337 E. 10th St.), Emporio (231 Mott St.), Martina (198 E. 11th St.), Marta (29 E. 29th St.).

5. Pizza alla Pala

Illustration: The Ellaphant in the Room/New York Magazine

What: Similar to Roman pan pizza but generally longer and baked directly on the oven floor, either sold whole or cut into squares and sold al taglio. Pala refers to the wooden peel used to shovel the pizza into and out of the oven.

Where: Farinella (multiple locations), Eataly Downtown (101 Liberty St.), Ribalta (48 E. 12th St.).

6. Pinsa

Illustration: The Ellaphant in the Room/New York Magazine

What: Depending on which Italian-food-marketing Svengali you’re talking to, either (a) an ancient flatbread used by peasants as an edible plate, (b) a term derived from the Latin pinsere, which describes the action of pressing down on or flattening something such as a ball of dough, (c) a modern, healthier alternative to pizza defined by the mix of flours used to make it: soy, wheat, rice, corn, etc., or (d) all of the above. Can be round or oval and is billed as lighter and crunchier than the competition.

Where: Camillo (1146 Nostrand Ave., Prospect–Lefferts Gardens), Mani in Pasta (multiple locations).

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.

Illustration: The Ellaphant in the Room/New York Magazine

1. Hydration

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.

2. Fermentation

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!

Can Roman-Style Pizza Conquer New York?