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February 02, 2006

Pizza Metro ... or ... I Miss Rome

Pizza Metro - 1707 W. Division, Chicago
Slumming over at LTHForum is definitely paying dividends. Today, it led me to a Roman-style pizza joint just around the corner that I'd never gotten around to checking out. While I'm not going to put it up against its actual Roman counterparts, Pizza Metro makes a damn tasty pizza that satisfies the craving and makes me happy.

But first, a discussion of Roman pizza.

Though there are, of course, many variants, there are two types of pizza that comprise most of what you'll find in Rome. First off, you have the trattoria-style pizza. This is what most folks are probably familiar with. The dough is rolled (and sometimes tossed) in a circular(ish) shape, and generally cooked in a brick wood-fired oven, which makes for a very thin, dry, crispy crust. The toppings are what Americans would think of as traditional... tomatoes, sausage, cheese, artichokes, mushrooms, prosciutto, olives... that kind of thing. Though, my personal favorite trattoria-style pizza is tuna and onions, especially with an egg in the middle and a healthy dose of chile oil. Trattoria-style pizza is fairly easy to come by in the states, though it's tough to find a place that does it well. But this is not the topic of today's discussion.

The kitchen. A small oven, but it's a small place.
Today, we're talking about pizza a taglio (by the slice), aka pizza rustica, aka Roman pan-style pizza. While you can sit yourself down in a nice Roman restaurant and have yourself a tasty trattoria-style pizza, if you're on the run or popping into a tavola calda, it's more than likely that you're going to get pizza a taglio. It's a completely different beast altogether. For starters, the dough is spread into rectangular pans generously slathered with olive oil, and the pizzas are cooked in a conventional oven. What's more, the dough is considerably thicker -- almost what Americans think of as focaccia. Because of all of these factors, the resulting crust is fairly thick, lightly crisp on the bottom and edges, but still a little doughy in the middle. It's also usually oily, and I absolutely mean that in a good way. The toppings also tend to cover a little more ground. You'll usually find some kind of potato pizza, maybe something with pesto, or even covered with a salad of marinated seafood, including octopus and squid.

In the back of the kitchen, a moist dough is spread into oiled, rectangular pans.
In Rome, pizza a taglio is a very, very casual thing. Any establishment that sells it usually puts the pans of pizza right up front, often in the window and sells the bulk of their wares to passers-by. You cruise by, pick whatever looks tasty, and they cut you a slice or two. If it's been sitting for a little while, they'll pop it back in the oven for just a minute to refresh it, but rest assured, this is no heat lamp manuever. I'm firmly of the believe that pizza a taglio reheated in such a manner is no worse for the wear, and maybe even a little better. The pizza is usually sold by weight, and then halfway wrapped in a piece of paper for eating on the road. The oil will start to soak through the paper in a few minutes, but if it's good pizza, it won't last that long anyway. And though there are some who would disagree, I'm of the opinion that not only does it make a good lunch or dinner, but that it's fair game for breakfast as well. It's a great way to feed yourself cheaply while in Rome.

Pizza Metro's par-baked crust. Suboptimal, I think, but unfortunately necessary.
But we're not in Rome. We're here in Chicago, where foot traffic in February isn't quite what it is in Rome at... well... any time of year. In America, we don't stroll. We order in. As such, it's tough to find a location that can support a selling-out-the-front-window format. Pizza Metro isn't in such a location. A few blocks to the west and maybe they could get away with it, but as they are, they're a destination. To be clear, they're a charming destination. It's a gritty little joint, festooned with a myriad of football banners from all over Europe. This afternoon, Marco, the owner, was sitting at the counter shouting excitedly into a cordless phone. My Italian comprehension what it is, he could have been discussing sports, threatening an enemy or telling his mama he loves her. In terms of tone and delivery, the distinctions are very fine. What's more, at least half of the folks present were speaking Italian, which I consider a good sign. But unfortunately, owing to the lack of foot traffic, I imagine that laying out pizzas isn't practical. So instead, Pizza Metro par-bakes their crusts. It definitely distinguishes them slightly from what I'd consider a traditional Roman pizza a taglio, but this isn't all bad, and I'll explain why shortly.

At this point, let it be said that while I've been to Rome a dozen or so times, my last trip was almost two years ago. As such, I was seriously missing Italy and definitely in a frame of mind to be kind. But here's how the pizza struck me.

I ordered a couple of favorites that I hoped would cover their capabilities. I got myself a slice of sausage, and a slice of potato rosemary. The first surprise was that all slices at Pizza Metro are cooked to order. They'll take slices of the par-baked crust, top them appropriately, and individually toss them in the oven for 5-10 minutes, right on the rack. And this is where I found a critical difference between Pizza Metro and what I think of as a traditional Roman pizza a taglio. The second bake seems to achieve two things. First, the crust doesn't seem as oily. I'm not sure if this is because they don't add as much oil, or because the second bake allows the dough to absorb more of the oil, leaving less on the outside. Secondly, the second bake changes the consistency of the crust. Where a traditional Roman is a little doughy on the inside and still has a little give, the Pizza Metro crust is extremely crisp on the top and the bottom, and also rather dry and crisp in the middle. As mentioned, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, just different. But even so, digging into my two slices, it was eminently clear that this was true Roman pizza a taglio in spirit, and that immediately took me to a happy place.

A little crispier than a traditional Roman, but its heart is in the right place, and it's quite good in its own right.
I ate the sausage first. It was a crumbled, sweet sausage, with a light hit of tomato sauce and not too much cheese. The sausage didn't quite hit me right on a couple of levels. For starters, I like my sausage to be a little more substantial. And secondly, the sausage itself wasn't quite doing it for me. It was extremely tart, which for some reason didn't seem quite right. That said, it was still a tasty, tasty slice of pizza, and I enjoyed it immensely, even if my socks were still firmly planted on my feet.

The potato, however, brought me back to Roma. The potatoes are sliced, seasoned and par-cooked so that they're just a little soft, but still have some body. If I wanted to be super picky, I could say that I personally like my potato pizza a little heavier on the garlic. But the truth is that it was a great slice, and fully Roman. Really, really good.

In the end, if Pizza Metro were located in Rome, there are plenty of other places I'd go first. But that said, the fact that there's a local establishment that has even bothered to recreate Roman pizza a taglio, and does it well, makes me exceedingly happy. There are some minor technical differences, but in spirit, this is Roman pizza. Plus, they deliver, they're open late, and I'm told they make a good espresso. I think I can safely say that whenever I haven't been to Italy for a while, this is one place I'll frequent to get my fix.


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