Ah, pizza. It’s one of the world’s most popular foods, and a stunning 93% of Americans eat it at least once a month. But when you picture pizza—a flatbread-like round covered with tomato sauce, melty cheese, and toppings like pepperoni and mushrooms, baked at a super-high heat and cut into wedges—what you see is just a slice of Italy’s long pizza tradition.
That iconic pizza picture is a variation on pizza Napoletana, which became a nationwide sensation in the late 19th century when a pizzaiolo in Naples named Don Raffaele Esposito created a red, green, and white pizza Margherita in honor of a visit by Queen Margherita of Savoy. His tomato, basil, and mozzarella-topped pie impressed the queen and other bakers quickly scrambled to recreate the popular dish, and its popularity was carried over to the U.S. by immigrants from Campania. But the tradition of topping flatbreads with savory bits and pieces to make a cheap yet filling meal is as old as the Roman Empire. Ligurian focaccia, Romagnan piada, and Tuscan schiacciata all share pizza’s ancient roots—basically, no matter where you go in Italy, you’re never far from a variation on this historically crowd-pleasing food.
As you travel through Italy, these are a few of the places where you’ll find unique pizza styles:
Roman pizza is characterized by an extremely thin crust that is brushed with olive oil, making it super crispy—more like a cracker than the puffy Neapolitan style. It’s rolled in long sheets, rather than rounds, and served in rectangular slices that are sometimes topped after baking. Giada’s favorite of this style comes from Antico Forno Roscioli, where she gets the mortadella-topped pizza bianca—so named because it has no sauce.
You may see pizzas in Rome advertised as pizza alla pala (“on the paddle”) or pizza al taglio (“by the cut”) In some pizzerias, pizza al taglio is sold by weight or measurement—simply tell the pizzaiolo how hungry you are, and they’ll cut you a piece to match your appetite!
As the birthplace of modern pizza, it’s no surprise that Neapolitans take their slices very seriously. The best pizza Napoletana has a flavorful, slow-leavened crust that puffs up with airy bubbles around the cornicione, also known as the outer crust. It’s baked at extremely high temperatures in wood-fired ovens, giving that cornicione the desired “leopard spots” of char while the bottom stays elastic. In 2017, this style was deemed so uniquely influential that it was added to UNESCO’s list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Another pizza favorite in Naples is pizza fritta, which combines the traditional pizza Napoletana with the city’s long tradition of fried street foods. To make it, pizza dough is stretched into a round, then topped with ricotta cheese and meat (but no tomato sauce!). It's then folded in half and sealed shut, so the fillings won't escape when it's dropped into the deep fryer. The result is a puffy, golden half-moon of crisp dough filled with creamy, melty cheese and salty meat.
Also known as sfincione, Sicilian-style pizza dough has an extended proof time, resulting in a focaccia-like crust that’s tall, fluffy, and light (the name translates loosely to “thick sponge,” a reference to its airy texture). It is baked in a rectangular pan and sold in square slices—if you’re a crunchy crust lover like we are, the corner slice is the one to get! Sicilian pizza doesn’t typically use mozzarella; instead, the fluffy dough is smothered with tangy tomato sauce, onions, and anchovies, then topped with crumbly grated caciocavallo cheese and crunchy breadcrumbs. Sfincione is often enjoyed as a mid-morning snack in the Sicilian capital of Palermo.