Brooklyn is the true homeland of pizza. It offers the broadest range of styles, fuels, and toppings, and in Brooklyn, one can still be astonished by a pizza, as I recently was at the rather grand-looking, but little known, La Villa Pizzeria in Park Slope, where I encountered a stuffed-crust pie from Abruzzo. Founded in 2003 on Fifth Avenue, the place boasts an interior clad in smoky marble and deeply stained woods. Lush banquettes run along austere white walls, while what looks like table lamps with great round shades hang from the ceiling.
Despite a menu that manages to cover all the bases of Italian-American cooking, from baked clams to baked pastas, pizzas remain the throbbing heart of the restaurant. Gleaming ovens run along the left side of the room as you enter, where pizzaioli massage balls of dough, poke their peels into the gaping maws of the wood-burning ovens, and bend this way and that as they wrangle the pies.
La Villa’s pizza menu is expansive; in fact, it tries to recreate nearly every type of Brooklyn pizza imaginable. The menu offers three styles of crust: Neapolitan (referring to the NYC’s original round pies), Sicilian (thick-crusted and rectangular), and Metro (round pies with a super-thin crust, as seen in modern Rome’s pizza tonda). These pies come with a host of optional toppings.
Then there are 18 specialty pies, with idiosyncratic crusts and toppings. Naturally, there’s a Naples-style margherita, a focaccia with broccoli rabe and sausage, and an upside-down Sicilian, the kind of Brooklyn pie favored at L&B Spumoni Gardens, in which the mozzarella goes on the bottom and the sauce on top, to keep the crust from getting soggy. But running my eye down this list, I was arrested by the pizza called Romana (“Roman”).
It was a stuffed crust pie but not like the ones at Domino’s. When it arrived at the table, it was rectangular and had achieved a beautiful shade of brown on the top crust, with a bottom crust twice as thick, nicely charred underneath here and there. The pie was sealed on the sides, boxing the ingredients, and when cut into 10 square pieces, the cheese seductively oozed out.
The pie was further stuffed with fennel sausage, pepperoni, and sliced, well-oiled potatoes. Wielding a giant spatula, a waiter ceremoniously served one slice each to my guest and me, as we sat at one of the breezy sidewalk tables, as tendrils of cheese stretched from pie to plate. This Romana was one of the best pizzas I’d ever tasted, creamy, gooey, meaty, and smoky, with the top crust crunchy and the bottom crust chewy. But where did this wonderful pie (small $16, large $27) come from, I wondered, since I’d never encountered anything quite like it.
One possibility that occurred to me was that it originated in Abruzzo, an isolated region on the Adriatic just across the towering Apennine Mountains from Rome. There, a double-crust pie called pizza rustica originated, possibly inspired by an ancient Roman pie, according to John Mariani in the Dictionary of Italian Food & Drink (1998). The pie he describes is stuffed with ricotta, mozzarella, prosciutto, and mortadella, and it struck me as wonderful that pepperoni, a particularly Italian-American meat, had been substituted in the present version. The potatoes seemed like they might be a distinctively American touch, too.
Journalist Waverly Root also wrote about the pizza rustica in his exhaustive Food of Italy (1971), describing it as “a meat-and-cheese pie of considerable complexity.” The version he described after living many years in Italy as correspondent for the Washington Post and Chicago Tribune featured chopped ham, sausage, three kinds of cheese, and boiled egg yolks in a crust made from a slightly sweet dough flavored with nutmeg, and egg-brushed on top to make it gleam.
Park Slope’s La Villa, which I’m convinced is one of the best pizzerias in the city, is the descendant of a pair of much older Brooklyn pizzerias with the same name. The first opened in Mill Basin in 1982, and the second in Howard Beach 10 years later — both from the same family whose patriarch, Louis “Gino” Branchinelli, had first opened a pizzeria in Bay Ridge in 1955. The current Park Slope location under co-owner Alfredo Di Scipio remains very much an extended-family affair.
I asked Di Scipio in an email exchange if my suspicion about the origin of the Romana was correct. “It’s funny that you say Abruzzo, my father is from a small medieval town called Crecchio, province of Chieti in Abruzzo. Pizza rustica as you know changes a lot region to region….The stuffed pizza we make does have some pizza rustica base but it also shows its Abruzzese roots from the potatoes and sausage.” So much for potatoes being an American addition.
The pie was so big that my guest and I took some home, and it was just as good cold out of the refrigerator the next morning. How wonderful, I thought, as I chewed each delicious bite, that the culinary influences from a remote mountainous region of Italy were still very much alive in Brooklyn.