Pizza as we know it was invented in Little Italy at Lombardi’s in the earliest years of the 20th century, big communal pies lush with toppings that formed quite a contrast with the scrawny, sparsely dressed pies of Naples that inspired them. In the ensuing years, pizzas proliferated across New York City and around the country, some with quirky regional styles. And eventually the American idea of pizza traveled all over the world, so that now pizzas are sold on every continent not covered by glaciers.
Inevitably, Italy sought its revenge, and 22 years ago, La Pizza Fresca opened in the Flatiron claiming to reproduce the original pies of Naples, as certified by an Italian trade organization. Since then, dozens of places claiming to make the true pie of Naples have appeared, and eventually, pizzaioli began arriving from Italy itself to cash in.
The latest of these is Stefano Callegari, who rode the crest of a wave showcasing Rome’s eclectic pizza traditions, like Camillo’s mixed-grain pinsas and Angelo Iezzi’s PQR’s pizza al taglio.
Callegari’s new Soho restaurant La Rossa, which opened a couple weeks ago at 267 Lafayette St., between Prince and Spring streets, specializes in small round pies that represent a Roman adaptation of Naples pizza, but with an airier and thinner crust. On my first of three visits, Callegari had planted himself behind the counter in front of his black beehive oven, methodically punching and pulling his supple round pies.
Over the years, the famed pizzamaker has distinguished himself in the demi-monde of Roman pizza by being wildly innovative. He introduced the trapizzino — a pizza-dough pocket of his invention — to New York City nearly two years ago but in Rome is just as well-known for light, crispy crust.
At La Rossa, his 12-inch pies include seven conventional ($12 to $18) and seven weird-ass examples ($23), sometimes using techniques that would do a science chef proud. His most famous pies seek to find pizza equivalents for pastas associated with Rome.
One that does so is the carbonara, my favorite of the five pies I tried. It’s yellow with egg yolks, cheesy with salty pecorino Romano, and dotted at random with irregular fragments of guanciale, the cured hog jowl that can be funky as hell. This pie slays.
Less satisfying was the testa rossa pie, topped with pork terrine. In Rome, offal is facetiously called “the fifth quarter of the animal,” so it was with some excitement I ordered the pie, whose name refers to head cheese. Supplemented with potatoes, mozzarella marinated in Campari, and orange rind, the head cheese sadly turned out to taste like deli boiled ham. The pie also suffered from over-charring, a common problem here among Italian pizzaioli. Who wants an aggressively burned crust?
And the Greenwich, which features stilton cheese crisscrossed with a port wine reduction, was one of the most revolting things I’ve tasted lately, proving that strong stinky cheese doesn’t belong on a pizza.
Callegari’s more conventional pies fared better. The margherita was denser than the other examples in town and exceptionally cheesy; every bite was a pleasure. While most Naples style margheritas in town are soupy in the middle and overinflated on the edges, this one achieved an even consistency. If a visitor wanted to try one of New York’s Naples margheritas, I’d send her to La Rossa, Una Pizza Napoletana, and Keste, in that order. The Napoli, like the margherita but with anchovies, is also highly recommended.
During the day, La Rossa also offers another kind of pizza, its own version of pizza al taglio, calling it pizza quadrata or pizza Romana — the most common style that pizza is served in Italy’s capital. These square slices are not made to order, but displayed on a long counter under the freakish globe lights. Consult a chalkboard by the front door to figure out what’s for sale each day, or simply glance through the glass sneeze guard.
The eight or so pizza quadrata choices ($6 to $10) have included some intriguing combinations — like wadded mortadella surmounted by dabs of ricotta. Another featured fresh squash blossoms cradling anchovies, while one square had porchetta and mushrooms. They were especially tasty, and very much represented the true Roman pizza. Unfortunately, the crusts have been of inconsistent thickness and density, and a couple of the six slices I tried were stale.
Hopefully, as traffic visiting the quadrata counter grows, the pies will be more freshly made. Until that time, pick the ones that are damp anyway, such as the namesake la rossa, which features sauteed red onions, red peppers, and tomatoes, which confer both bright color and bright flavor. Heating the slices helps, too, and lately the restaurant has been allowing purchasers of quadrata slices to sit in the dining room.
The apps are also worth exploring, including deep fried rice balls, a generous Caprese salad, and a Roman version of hummus. But they’re only worth sampling while you wait for your margherita or carbonara to arrive as you sit in the dining room, sipping a Lambrusco that you’ve carried out from the liquor store around the corner on Spring Street. For the time being, La Rossa is blessedly BYOB.