For dinner one night we find our way to Casa del Sole. It’s a country house outside of Pesaro. We’re 15-20 miles inland, where the gentle hills rising to Urbino begin, far enough from the sea to know we’ll be eating meat.
“We haven’t been to this place before,” my wife’s cousin says.
“But my sister has,” his wife adds. “Si mangia bene.”
That’s good enough for us.
We turn in the direction of Montelabbate. Before we see anything that looks like a village, just off the main road, sitting in a grove of trees, is an old two-story house. Out back there’s seating in the garden. Inside are two dining rooms. Something tells me they may have seating upstairs as well. Inside the front door, scrawled in white chalk on the black specials board, we see this: pizza pesca e guanciale. Pizza with peach and pig cheek. Really? Okay, I’ll bite.
Pizza, of course, is everywhere in Italy, and if there’s one thing you can depend on, it’s infinite variability. I would liken the diversity in pizza to local dialects. Or think recombinant DNA—a stable set of genetic material, with new creations in the offing, according to the ingenuity and flair of the pizza scientist, also known as the pizzaiolo.
In this region there are old standards we look forward to. Number one is simplicity itself, a white pizza seasoned with salt and rosemary. The local name for this delight is spianata. In the U.S. we know it as focaccia. (At an airport in Rome one time we saw it at a carry-out place. When my wife asked for a slice of spianatina, the server had no idea what she was referring to. After she pointed it out, he said, “Around here we call that a schiaciattina.”)
A close relative of spianata is the fornarina (in Pesaro called a “ciclista”—a cyclist). Unlike the spianata, however, which can be thick and bready, ideal for sopping up the sauce remaining in a pasta dish or left over from a stew, the fornarina/ciclista is thin and flaky. It arrives on the table in a basket, still hot from the oven.
Thin is one of the defining characteristics of pizza around here. There’s no such thing as deep dish. And what you put on the pizza is likely to be local.
At Il Moletto, a pizza and fish restaurant on the Adriatic in Pesaro, I count 25 pizzas on the menu. You can get classics, like the pizza margherita and quattro formaggi, and predictables, like frutti di mare and funghi e salsiccia (mushrooms and sausage), along with oddities (the patatrack—a pizza with mozzarella, salsiccia, boiled potato, and rosemary) and pizzas that are also an homage to the home town, like the Moletto (mozzarella, shrimp, crab, and arugula) and the Rossini (tomato, mozzarella, hard-boiled egg, and mayonnaise). And off course, what figures prominently on the menu is what’s in season. Here, for example, a pizza with artichokes.
The night in Montelabbatte our pizzaiolo offers up surprises and delights. We begin with the pesca and pig cheek pizza. Peaches are in season. Pig cheek is a constant. Together they make music. Who would have thought?
Next we taste a black ciclista (we are far enough away from Pesaro, they do not call it that) and a pizza with cannabis. The active ingredient in the black pizza is vegetable carbon, a particulate made from charred vegetable fibers, not FDA approved in the US, whereas the laid back ingredient in the pot pizza comes from ground hemp seeds. In both cases we live dangerously, enjoy some forbidden fruits. All three pizzas are appetizers for the main courses that follow.
At the end of the evening, the man in front of the oven, the pizzaiolo, comes out and takes his bows. (Pizzaiolo is still primarily a male profession. The Italian newspaper La Repubblica reports that, as of 2017, for every ten men, only one woman is enrolled in the Federazione Pizzaioli.)
Our pizzaiolo has made music in the kitchen. As we make our way to the door, he sits down at the piano and makes more music. This is another night to remember.