I first came across something called “pizza bianca” years ago in Rome. I was doing a little shop-and-stroll through Campo de Fiori, when I realized that I was suddenly walking against quite a bit of oncoming pedestrian traffic. Definitely walking against the tide, if you will. I was fairly experienced in a certain kind of crowd mentality in Rome, typically involving a swarm of Catholics heading toward a pope in a window or vehicle or lesser Catholic muckety-muck on yet another Saint’s day that was news to me. I had learned this lesson well, to the point that when two or more older Roman women were coming in my direction for any reason, I quickly moved as far out of their way as possible. You don’t mess with those women…
Anyway, this time was different. Less religious intensity. More giddy greed. Like a group of kids who not only know where the good candy is, but that there’s not enough for everyone, these people were walking swiftly in the same direction, trying and failing to look nonchalant — like, “it’s no big deal, you wouldn’t really like this anyway, just pay no attention to us.” You could tell that if just one of them broke into a run, a stampede would quickly ensue.
So of course, I followed them, trying to pick up hints of what we were all going for. Soon enough, I was standing in a line that went straight into Forno, a bakery right on the square that I had wandered by dozens of times. I say “wandered by” because I’m just not that much of a bakery girl — but a restaurant called La Carbonara was right next door. So yes, I wandered right past the bakery toward anything named Carbonara. (This will not come as a surprise to anyone who knows me…)
But there I stood, in line at Forno, for what turned out to be a fresh batch of pizza bianca — simply pizza crust, unadorned except for olive oil and salt. It was pillowy, chewy, yeasty and delicious, and I was lucky to score a piece before they sold out. Pizza bianca is a “thing” in Rome. I think it summons generations of childhood memories and DNA-level comfort food signals, in much the same way as the blinking neon “hot doughnuts now” sign at a Krispy Kreme in the deep South, or chips and salsa in Texas.
Outside Rome, pizza bianca seems to broadly refer to any pizza that does not have a tomato sauce base. And since the ability to recreate that perfect Roman crust is far beyond my abilities, I take the outside-Rome approach when making a pizza bianca at home.
There are a couple of nice benefits to a pizza bianca. One is that without the tomato sauce as competition, you can really taste the other ingredients. The complexity of shiitakes and the sweetness of roasted garlic, as I’ve used here. Or Brussels sprouts, delicate cheeses like buratta, yellow teardrop tomatoes, caramelized shallots, even seafood. And when I use one of these beloved Vicolo cornmeal pizza crusts, the whole thing is somewhere between a pizza and a tart.
Pairing: California Merlot
The other advantage of this kind of pizza bianca is that the absence of tomato sauce opens up the wine pairing spectrum for me — New World Merlot and Chardonnay become good matches, whereas I usually steer far clear of them as pizza wines. (Not nearly enough acid to match the acidity in tomato sauce; they just taste flabby by comparison. That’s where high-acid wines like Sangiovese and Pinot Grigio work.)
I like a good Merlot with this shiitake pizza bianca — one with richness and elegance, not just simple smooth fruit. Here are a few I’ve enjoyed lately:
St. Supéry 2010 Merlot Rutherford ($50). Layered, structured stuff — with mineral notes and firm tannins supporting pretty cherry and currant fruit. Accents of fresh tobacco, aromatic cedar, brown spices. Should age beautifully for another decade or so. Find it! (2013-11-04)
Grgich Hills 2008 Merlot Napa Valley ($42). Very nice, with an appealing array of smooth black cherry, baking spices and vanilla, and plenty of stuffing in the form of supporting structure, bright acidity and intensity of flavor. Finishes with bittersweet chocolate and a touch of roasted herbal notes. Find it!
William Hill 2010 Merlot Napa Valley ($30). Ripe and rich and supple, with pretty cherry/berry flavors that stop short of being jammy. With toasty oak, mocha and spice accents. Find it!
Kendall-Jackson 2009 Merlot Sonoma County Grand Reserve ($23). A nice surprise — at a really good price. Plenty of structure and balance supporting rich blackberry and black cherry, with layers of spice, toast and stony mineral notes. Find it!
Ghost Pines 2010 Merlot Sonoma-Napa County Winemaker’s Blend ($20). Ripe and supple, with waves of black cherry and blackberry fruit that pick up warm spices, chocolate and toasty vanilla through the finish. Find it!
Recipe: Shiitake Mushroom Pizza Bianca
1 Vicolo organic corn meal pizza crust or pizza crust of your choice
1 head garlic, broken into individual, unpeeled cloves
1/2 pound shiitake mushrooms, cleaned and cut into 1/4-inch slices
hunk of Parmigiano Reggiano
couple of handfuls of baby arugula
1 green onion, thinly sliced
extra virgin olive oil
kosher salt and freshly-ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 375F. Spread unpeeled garlic cloves on a baking sheet. Sprinkle lightly with kosher salt and then drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. Bake just until soft and tender, something like 20 minutes, but maybe a bit longer. Give the garlic a stir at least once during cooking, then spread them back out on the pan.
While garlic is cooking, sauté the sliced mushrooms in a large skillet, with just a small amount of olive oil. Continue cooking until the mushrooms have released their liquid and that liquid has evaporated. Season lightly with salt and pepper and set aside.
When garlic is soft, remove from the oven. Increase oven temperature to 425F.
When garlic is cool enough to handle, squeeze the garlic out of each papery skin. Place about ten of the cloves in a small bowl and mash with a fork. (You can stash the rest of the garlic in a container in the fridge for later use.) Spread the mashed garlic over the surface of the pizza crust. Top with mushrooms. Give the whole thing another drizzle of olive oil and then bake for 12-15 minutes, until the crust is crisp and lightly browned around the edges.
When done, remove from oven. Top with a couple of handfuls of baby arugula that have been lightly seasoned with salt and olive oil. Using a vegetable peeler, shave long strips of parmesan cheese and sprinkle over the pizza, along with the sliced green onion. Serves 2.