By Traveltruth Managing Editor Richard Bruce Turen


For the past twenty-three years, my family and I have taken our annual vacation accompanied by a few dozen of our favorite clients. Insane, perhaps, but shared experiences are always the best. But unlike the tours, culinary and otherwise, that I’ve put together for our clients, this trip has a rather specific purpose. It is called “In Search of southern Italy’s Best Pizza.” That means we will have to go to Sicily, walk the back streets of Naples, and try the best that they have to offer along the Amalfi Coast. Then back to Rome to make certain that we have not overlooked a crust in some pizza joint with toppings deserving of being named “Italy’s Best Pizza.”

At the end of the trip, we will be voting by secret ballot, having experienced some of the best pizza Italy has to offer. I want you to come along with me on this trip.is year’s trip should be memorable, but it will not be particularly profitable. The planning has taken far too much of my time. Seeing Italy by cruise ship would have been easier. The logistics have been challenging, primarily because the entire thirteen night journey will be spent in Rome and points south. pizza pans B

 In Italy, there are two economies. There are two ways of looking at life. There are latent antagonisms that go back centuries. The north and south don’t get along particularly well. Snobs in Florence and Milan see the southerner as a lout, not sophisticated, not well-dressed, and, shame of all shames, a people enamored by simple pleasures like lemons and tomatoes.

Having lived in northern Italy for six years, I am very much aware of these generalizations about the south. The north feels the south is a drag on its economy. The police who patrol northern cities in Italy have always hailed from the south. Just like the trash collectors.

We start out in the Eternal City, eternally chaotic Rome. We stay for a few nights at a four-star hotel called the Rose Garden Palace, a favorite of our ground operator, Abercrombie & Kent Italy. It is a pleasant place with a lovely garden dining area and good access to a number of area restaurants. It also happens to sit directly across the street from one of the main security gates at the American Embassy.

One member of our group, whose room overlooked the gate of the embassy, told me she had a hard time leaving the hotel in the evening as the show right outside her window was so fascinating. Every person was questioned, every car was searched, even the incoming food was inspected.

Rome seems to me to be more orderly than I remember it, with street construction, a huge undertaking given the potential treasures underfoot, seeming to be everywhere. I read the local news before arrival and during my stay, something I always do when I travel. Rome got a new Prime Minister this year, 39 year-old Matteo Renzi. I hesitate to use his name as this will seriously date my piece because no one can possibly know if he will still be in office when you read this. But Mr. Renzi is young, rather handsome, elegantly dressed at all times, and he was the former Mayor of Florence. He helped lead the opposition to the notorious Silvio Berlusconi and some in Italy expected a rash of reform. After all, precisely half of his 16-member cabinet is female, a sort of revolution in Italy.

But alas, during my stay in Rome the papers headlined “Renzi accused of appointing female ministers based purely on their looks and youth.”

Change comes slowly to Rome – if at all. And amidst all of the incredible history and movie-set elegance of the city, the major question on the mind of most tourists is “why anyone would ever choose to drive a bus here”?

On Day two we headed for the Rome central market, the new one, where we stopped to taste fruits and vegetables we haven’t seen before. It may have been the environment but we tasted tomatoes that made us angry, angry at the fake food we allow to be sold in the States, including chemically altered tomatoes. I found a stand that sold small bottles of my favorite Italian vice, tartufo salsa. These tiny jars of truffle paste can turn ordinary dishes at home into something magical and a little bit goes a long way.

After the Testaccio market, we headed to a small villa in the center of Rome, down a lovely side street. We met a delightful Chef named Daniela, who showed us how to cook a complete summer meal which we enjoyed at a long table in the garden.

The next day, I had designed two tour experiences that were a bit off the charts. I wasn’t at all sure how things would turn out but they were both experiences that I wanted our clients to try.

First, we headed over to the Universita’ La Sapienza in central Rome. With 130,000 students, this is the largest educational institution in Europe. And our tour leader was a guide who had been a student there. I had requested an honest appraisal of the Italian educational system and I think we got one. After our tour of the campus, we met in a vacant classroom with one of the school’s dean’s, a woman involved in overseeing a number of academic programs.

The three hours we spent at the University were like a skit out of Saturday Night Live. Everything was a disconnect. Our questions received answers that often bordered on the incredulous. Here were my take-aways:

  • Almost everyone attends an educational institution that is publicly funded.
  • Many students have great difficulty finding the building on campus and the room where their classes are being taught. No one has a guidance counselor. Since education is essentially free, the attitude of the administration seems to be “you’re in college so it’s your job to figure out how to sign up for coursea and how to find your professor.” This is made more challenging since professors often change their rooms and are quite arbitrary about what time they will be teaching. We met two students who said that at least one of their professors had re-scheduled a class in the middle of the night due to dinner engagements.
  • Students may “reject” their grade. They have the right to take a course as many times as they wish until they achieve the grade they deem acceptable.
  • Since the education is essentially free, and unemployment among the young is approaching 30%, students take their time. Many do not complete their college education until they are well into their thirties.
  • There is no social stigma attached to living at home with one’s parents, something many young people do well into their forties to save on rent, dry cleaning, and the cost of dining out.

The following day, things started getting serious. We were deposited at the doorstep of Tony Vespa at his well-known pizzeria Al Grottino. Mr. Vespa is a Canadian with a sharp wit and a passion for making pizza the classic, “technically correct” way. He married a Roman woman and lived in the city perfecting his pizza techniques for thirty years.Our hands-on class lasted four hours and culminated in the design, from scratch, of a certified “world class pizza” cooked by each of us. Some were better than others, as we each used different ingredients. But the crust had to be perfect or we would be instructed to start again.

We had to place the pizza in the brick-oven and heat it just right.I have more to tell you about pizza than space to tell it. So just let me close with two bits of insider pizza education.

First, your pizza is not cooked properly if it does not have charred marks on its bottom from the oven.

Second, it is the height of vulgarity to serve a pizza that is pre-sliced. How a pizza is to be cut is a very important and personal decision, one no one in the kitchen ought to be making for the guest.

Tomorrow our search continues as we head for Sicily, Naples, and the Amalfi coast.