Pinsa Is Pizza's Roman Relative—and If You Haven't Tried It, You're Seriously Missing out
It's basically a "cloud" of pizza. Need we say more?
Pinsa, a Roman flatbread that has been enjoyed since before pizza evolved, is having a moment. It has arisen in pizzerias and restaurants in American cities from New York to San Francisco, in eateries with a strong Italian focus. This resurgence comes in the wake of a broader rekindling of interest in the cooking of Rome. Why try pinsa? What makes it unique? And is it pizza or not?
Let’s start with the last question. The short answer: no.
Though pinsa looks like pizza, authorities tend to characterize pinsa as a flatbread. This is a little bit of an arbitrary distinction to make. If you consider where pizza stands in the taxonomy of world breads, it isn’t hard to make an argument that pizza itself is a flatbread. A flatbread with cheese, often sauce, plus other toppings.
This said, there are several key differences between pizza and pinsa. The first is dough makeup. Pizza dough uses 100 percent standard wheat flour, often ground to 00 fineness. Pinsa, on the other hand, is much more flexible. In addition to standard wheat flour, a grain like spelt is typically used. It has also become common for soy and rice flour to find their way into the dough. This flexibility stems from scarcity. When people baked pinsa in the old days, they shaped dough with whatever they had.
Another difference: shape. Pinsa tends to be stretched into oblong, lengthened ovals. Fermentation time, too, can set pinsa and pizza apart. Pizza dough can ferment for anywhere from a few hours to a few days. Modern Pinsa makers tend toward longer fermentations, often two days or more.
A final difference lies in dough hydration (meaning wetness). Hydration varies widely for standard pizza. Some pizza styles, like the Roman al taglio (square pies cut with scissors) are high hydration, making for a lighter, airier crust. Modern pinsa makers also tend toward high-hydration doughs.
So how does this all look in a final oblong length of pinsa?
The main difference lies in the crust. Because we’re using less grain, pinsa dough has less gluten. In a nicely crafted pizza dough, whether aiming for a soft, Neapolitan-style crust or a more resisting New York-style bite, there is a springy quality—a sort of light bouncy pushback against your teeth. This comes partly from gluten (although there are other factors, like crust protein content). Pinsa doesn’t have this springy bite as much as pizza does.
Instead, pinsa dough is light and crisp. On the edges where it has been crimped, it can have a bite almost cracker-y. Non-grain additions give pinsa crust less of the wheat-field depth of a masterful pizza dough. It has been said that this relative lightness makes pinsa easier to digest.
The flexible, whatever’s-available spirit of pinsa dough extends to its toppings. You’ll see a nice range. There isn’t a raging pineapple-or-no-pineapple debate when it comes to pinsa. Pinsa makers get pretty freeform, and often use the seasons as their guide. I’ve seen pinsa with everything from potato coins to tomato sauce to nuts, deli meat, and burrata that you fork open and smear.
The ultimate question about pinsa might be this: can it hang with pizza? Pizza has such a wide range of styles. Pizza has so many masters. It has evolved so much in the last 20 years. That’s a high bar for pinsa to meet. But I think the way of approaching pinsa is to think about it not as something that can compete with or replace pizza. Instead, look to it as a food that has been enjoyed for so long that, hey, maybe you’ll enjoy it, too.