During my semester in Rome, my favorite class was an art history course on the High Renaissance.
Rome made art history easy to love. In Rome, the past and the present are pressed up against one another like passengers on a crowded bus. The relationship is cramped and awkward, even a little invasive. History is accommodated, not enshrined, and much of the city’s older art is startlingly immediate and accessible.
My High Renaissance course had no excursions to crowded museums, no squinting at works in a blank, neutral environment while desperately trying to imagine them in their original contexts. Though our lectures took place on campus in a regular classroom, our on-site visits involved excursions to churches and other buildings all over Rome. Along with a happy dearth of museums, High Renaissance class also had another draw: Professor H.
Our first introduction to Professor H. came during our program orientation, during an excursion to Umbria. A slight, soft-spoken man, he gave the impression of being bookish, even mousy, as he provided notes on the history of the region on the way to our destination. Upon sensing a general lack of interest when he resumed his lecture on the return trip, however, he abruptly switched gears – and declared that we'd probably get more use out of a lesson in Italian swear words. Within minutes, he was leading students in a chorus of curses, cheerfully shouting profanities at the top of his lungs. It was a very clear sign that High Renaissance would probably not involve the staid, theoretical lectures we'd expected.
Professor H.’s on-site discourse was peppered with anecdotes about popes and Italian noblemen, and we were often given a good dose of saucy Renaissance humor along with observations on contrapposto and color theory. Furthermore, on-site visits demanded little in the way of note-taking. He left us to refer to our textbooks for hard facts, preferring that we listen and observe. It may not have been the most academic of courses, but it was decidedly entertaining.
Best of all, Professor H. was knowledgeable about food. He had earned his degrees in art history part-time while working as a chef, and asking him just a brief question about a Roman specialty could elicit detailed instructions for its preparation. On organized trips to towns outside of Rome, he’d take willing students to little osterie serving pasta with chestnut flour and lamb chops with fried potatoes. In Venice, city of a thousand tourist traps, he led us to a restaurant where all the patrons were locals, and the menu included sarde in saour and squid in its own ink served with white polenta. Our on-site class meeting just happened to conclude at lunchtime, and Professor H. would often announce that he’d be having lunch someplace in the neighborhood, and that anyone who had time to spare before afternoon class was welcome to join him.
The day our class met at the church of Santa Maria della Pace, I did not have a good morning. I overslept and missed breakfast. I took a wrong turn after crossing the river, and my map proved virtually useless when I hit a particularly serpentine collection of streets right near Piazza Novona. By the time I located the church, I’d run through my entire newfound vocabulary of Italian curse words, mentally heaping invective on Professor H., on-site visits, and all High Renaissance art. Bramante’s cloister might have been a charming example of Renaissance architecture, but I was in no mood to appreciate it. When Professor H. dismissed the class, I couldn’t help but sigh in relief. I perked up, however, when he mentioned the words lunch and pizza bianca.
Roman pizza bianca is not white pizza. Not in the American sense, at least. It’s a thin, chewy bread with a light outer crust, baked in blazingly hot ovens and seasoned with nothing more than olive oil and salt. It’s typically eaten plain as a snack, but the hole-in-the-wall to which Professor H. led us specialized in pizza bianca sandwiches – slices split horizontally and stuffed with all kinds of fillings. The smell was wonderful, and the selection generous. One overstuffed assemblage of hard-boiled eggs, tomato, arugula, capers and salsa tonnata later, I was in a much more forgiving mood. Professor H. was a riot; Santa Maria della Pace, delightful; High Renaissance art history, still my favorite class.
I didn’t plan a repeat visit to that sandwich shop, though. Getting lost in that neighborhood just once was enough for me.
Pizza bianca should be crisp on the outside and springy on the inside – pleasantly chewy, but not aggressively so. If you can find Italian “00” grind durum flour, it produces particularly flavorful results, but otherwise, use a good unbleached all-purpose. Don’t use bread flour unless your jaws are in dire need of exercise.
The tray-switching trick in this recipe is intended to compensate for the lack of a baking stone. If you have a baking stone, bake the pizza bianca on a rack in the upper third of the oven, and don’t worry about moving it.
(Makes enough for three servings, if you don't eat half of it hot out of the oven.)
At no less than ninety percent hydration, this is very, very, very wet dough. It’s entirely workable by hand if you don’t mind a little mess, but I won’t hold it against you if you mix it up in a heavy-duty stand mixer.
That said, if you're willing to do this by hand, get out a large mixing bowl, and stir together one-and-three-quarter-cups (two-hundred and fifty grams, eight point eight ounces) all-purpose flour, one teaspoon (five grams) instant yeast, and half a teaspoon (four grams) salt. Pour in a little under one cup of lukewarm water (two hundred and twenty-five mililitres, seven point six fluid ounces.) Stir to combine. The mixture will look like thick paste.
Scrape the paste out on a clean countertop. Work it by either sticking your hand it the mixture and stirring, or smearing it out on the countertop and scraping it back together. It will take a while before the dough develops any kind of body; be patient. It will gradually go from pasty, to sticky, to gummy.
The way to tell if this dough is kneaded adequately is to take your hand, pull it away from the dough, and hold it flat above the dough. The excess dough will fall off in a sticky ribbon. If it falls off immediately, you’re not done. If it hangs for a few seconds before falling, you’re good to go.
Grease the bowl with olive oil and scrape the dough back into the bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and leave in a warm place until it triples in volume (one to two hours.)
While the dough is proofing for the second time, place an oven rack in the top third of your oven, and another in the bottom third of your oven, as close to the bottom heating element as possible. Place a metal baking tray on the bottom rack.
Crank up your oven as far as it will go. (Mine goes to about 550F.)
Once your oven reaches temperature, carefully hook the rack and slide it out far enough to drop the parchment with dough on the baking tray. Bake for ten minutes.
After ten minutes, carefully (very carefully) move the tray to the top rack. If your oven has a broil setting, switch it on. Bake until the pizza bianca is a deep golden brown and just starting to blister in a few spots. (The blackened spots in the photo are where I stretched the dough too thin; ideally, your pizza bianca shouldn't burn like that.)
Remove from oven. Let it cool to the point where it won’t burn your fingers before you give in to the urge to nosh.
For sandwiches, cut the pizza bianca into rectangles, split them horizontally (not all the way; you want to form a sort of pocket, like pita bread), and stuff with your choice of fillings. If you can get your hands on fresh figs, figs and prosciutto are classic.