The virtues of la cucina italiana are recognized around the globe. But I am going to tell you about a delicious Italian food that you likely have not heard of before.
This is pinsa.
First, a quick lesson in pronunciation. It may look like PIN-SA, but it’s not. The i in Italian is pronounced like ee in English. So, one would say PEENS-ah. Unfortunately, when you attempt to say this, most English speakers will likely react with a furrowed brow and reply, “You mean pizza?”
No. It’s like pizza but it’s not. Definitely not.
Pinsa differs from pizza in several ways, some superficial, some substantial. First, it is oval-shaped. Not such a big deal. A much bigger deal is the base. Rather than a flat middle and thick edges as with pizza crust, cooked pinsa dough is uneven throughout. It’s puffy and filled with air pockets. It’s so light and airy that some people say the base resembles a cloud. The word pinsa is derived from the verb pinsere, which means to spread and stretch by hand. Hence, the resulting rumpled shape of the base.
More significant is the composition of the dough that makes up the base. It’s a blend of non-GMO vegetable flour, rice flour, and soy flour, along with yeast, olive oil, and salt. The dough is extremely hydrated and is fermented, cold, for several days rather than hours. This process breaks down the starch and produces a bread-like underlayer that is rigid but feather-light. After adding herbs, it becomes aromatic, with the scent lingering in a room for hours.
The taste and texture are divine – crunchy on the outside, soft and warm on the inside. There’s a reason why ancient Romans offered pinsa to the gods. Over 2,000 years ago, the poet P.V. Maro, better known as Virgil, eloquently described the consumption of foods placed atop lumpy flat bread that served as edible plates:
…their hunger drove them on to attack the fateful plates themselves, their hands and teeth defiling, ripping into the thin dry crusts, never sparing a crumb of the flat-bread scored in quarters. — The Aeneid, Book VII
By coincidence, that description fairly accurately summarizes the behavior of myself and my dining companions in consuming pinsa. More recent writers have been less emotionally expressive than Virgil, instead choosing to extol the health benefits of pinsa versus pizza, noting in particular the enhanced digestibility of the former. Indeed, pinsa is not only gluten-free, it is significantly lower in fat, cholesterol, sugar, and carbs than pizza. It might be better health-wise to order pinsa for a late-night snack while watching old horror movies or feeling the effects of cannabis.
There are other benefits. Pinsa usually uses little or no tomato sauce and only bits of cheese. So, the topping and crust never congeal into a gloppy mess. Molten mozzarella never burns your tongue. And the oil doesn’t drip down your hand if you eat it while walking around. When you hold a piece of pinsa, it stays flat, stiff, and supports whatever is on top long enough to eat it. Messy fingers be gone.
But here’s what’s really buonissimo. For whatever reason, pinsa makers (called pinsaioli) like to combine unusual toppings – to great effect. Such as crispy prosciutto with brie. Or smoked salmon with avocado. Our nearby pinsa shop keeps bringing out endless variations; we rarely see the same thing repeated. When we make it at home, we improvise with what’s freshly available.
Turns out that pinsa pre-dates pizza by centuries. The Romans made it way before tomatoes were introduced into the culture. For centuries, Europeans believed tomatoes were poisonous; they are in the nightshade family, after all. In fact, wealthy people who could afford pewter plates were being poisoned, as the acidic tomatoes drew out the lead content. The innocent tomato got the blame for resulting deaths.
Once pizza with tomato sauce took hold in Naples in the 1870s, the popularity of pizza surged. Over the decades since World War II, pizza has become one of the most instantly recognizable and favored foods in many cultures throughout the world. At the same time, its ancient predecessor faded into culinary obscurity.
In the early years of this century, an enterprising Roman chef, Corrado di Marco, claims to have re-discovered pinsa. He updated it, using an old family recipe. His company, Pinsa Romana, now produces not only the flour but a pre-made dough base that — once piled with toppings of your choice and olive oil — takes only five minutes to bake. The company website says there are now more than 5,000 pinsa places worldwide, which could be many or hardly any, depending on one’s perspective.
Another entrepreneurial Italian chef started a school in 2016 to teach the preparation of this food item. There is now even a pinsa trade association to ensure authenticity. Pinserie have spread to most parts of Italy and some other countries in Europe. But pinsa has only begun to penetrate North America. There are a dozen pinserie in New York, about as many in Los Angeles and Chicago, and a handful in San Francisco.
Pinsa doesn’t seem to have hit the shores of Seattle in a major way, which is surprising given the city’s foodie reputation. A place in Ballard was reported to be near ready to feature it. But the pandemic put the start-up under after only a few months.
From a look at the website of Serious Pie, it seems these Tom Douglas places might offer pinsa. But it’s hard to tell. Photos on the website include an oval-shaped item called a “small pizza.” That’s an oddly laconic description for the loquacious restauranteur. The proof is not shape and size, but rather the composition and taste of the base. If it is indeed authentic pinsa, would these pizzerias not explain the difference in detail? Perhaps a reader here who is familiar with pinsa could report back with his or her own findings.
As luck would have it, you don’t need to wait for someone to open a pinsa place near you. DeLaurenti in Pike Place Market carries the ready-made dough. It’s a bit pricey, but trust me, it’s worth it. You could also make the dough yourself, but with exact proportions and process being crucial, I don’t feel sufficiently competent to try it.
Fortunately, the rediscovery of pinsa allows us to continue to enjoy a healthy, highly flavorful dish. The same food that inspired a poet 2,050 years ago.
And you just read my own ode, written in unmetered prose.