One of the real successes of American food marketing has been convincing the general public that pizza, the Italian habit of baking things on thin bread, is somehow difficult. At the grocery store there is no end to the shortcuts on offer, everything from pre-made sauces, pre-baked crusts and pre-shredded cheese to the actual pizzas themselves, flash frozen for your ultimate convenience.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are the auteurs with continental pretensions who speak of a mystical thing called pizza, demanding a wood-burning stove, the highest-quality imported ingredients, and the kind of spiritual oneness with the dough only achieved by a madman pizza savant. As great as it can be, I can never seem to enjoy myself at these places for their long waits, inflated prices, and unbearable attitudes.
In the middle of this dilemma I find myself in the Testaccio neighborhood of Rome, pondering pizza in a public park. Looking around there is a unifying theme, sprezzatura, an air of effortless cool that the old gentlemen in their wrinkled linen suits are nailing. Roman cooking, pizza especially, similarly reflects a quiet, self-assured finesse. Pizzerias are on every corner, and the local style is a thin crust spread into a rectangular baking tray and topped with whatever is in abundance. The oven isn’t fussed over, many are gas or electric. You don’t have to call ahead, or ride to the hip part of town; it’s just a short walk and a few Euro coins for a simple, delicious lunch.
As far as gastronomy goes, sprezzatura has not arrived in America. Our little culinary victories are celebrated with the kind of deafening applause that always seems to end in the silence of the frozen food section, a vast, icy repository of watered-down world cuisine. Romans, conversely, don’t have even a fraction of our diversity, but they’ve mastered their own cooking in a way that makes you forget about everything else. They love the farms and vineyards of their region, even if they aren’t as famous as those of Tuscany or Emilia-Romagna. Local ingredients are the centerpieces of their recipes and they rarely have to fly anything in. The Roman attitude reflects a fundamental truth about gastronomy—sophistication is more about production than it is consumption. The modern globetrotting means nothing without a simple appreciation of one’s surroundings.
The best thing I brought back from Rome was this casual pizza lifestyle. A few minutes spent mixing together batches of dough and storing them in the freezer results in the possibility of pizza any time that’s almost as easy as the pre-made kind, but infinitely more satisfying and adaptable to any and all tastes.