The pizza dough at Rittenhouse’s Rione ferments for 72 hours, but its origin story dates back much further, to July 1970, when Muammar al-Gaddafi — stay with me here — expelled tens of thousands Italian nationals from Libya, an Italian colony for roughly 40 years.
Among the refugees were the parents of Francesco Crovetti, one half of the totes-adorbs couple who owns Rione. Crovetti’s parents were born in Tripoli but met later, as teenagers, and married after their families resettled in Rome, where “rione” is the word for “neighborhood.” Francesco’s father got a job with the Italian State Department, eventually moving to a post in London, where Francesco was born. Francesco grew up there, but also in Lima, Karachi and Jakarta. He went back to London for college, then back to Italy, where he met Allison Gemgnani, a masters student from Allentown, studying public management Milan’s Bocconi University. Within three months, they moved in together.
The whirlwind romance continued in Rome, then in DC, where the couple married. Crovetti started waiting tables at a Neapolitan pizzeria, then became back-of-the-house manager. Alison was working for the UN in development and environmental issues, but “going into business together was always the dream,” Crovetti said with a barely-there Italian accent. They decided on a pizzeria, chose Philly to be close to Alison’s family and opened Rione in May.
In the interest of not burying the lead too much, Rione’s pizza is among the very best served in the city right now.
Crovetti makes pizza al taglio — those are the long, rectangular pies baked in pans like focaccia, shorn with scissors and sold by weight. They’re found at bakeries and pizzerias all around Rome, the most au courant of which is Pizzarium by the Vatican, from grain whisperer Gabriele Bonci. Crovetti attended the Scuola Nazionale di Pizza in Rome, same as Bonci, studying under Angelo Ietzzi, godfather of the long-fermented, high-hydration approach to dough fashionable in pizzaiolo circles today.
“Neapolitan has had all the buzz for the last 20 years,” Crovetti said. “It’s Roman’s turn.”
I am on board with that assessment, especially when the slices are as crisp-bottomed and airy as Rione’s. The fermentation adds a subtle sourdough tang and makes these carbs easily digestible, so you ( I) can eat four iPhone-Plus-sized pieces and feel satiated, but not like you (I) need to consume nothing but kale the following day.
In the 26-seat white-and-wood space, Crovetti lines the pre-sliced pies up behind glass counter. Viewed overhead, various toppings make them look like a great, multicolored patchwork quilt, tomatoes and potatoes with pesto stitching. Count on at least ten different pizzas available a day, the best of which features crepe-papery Lancaster squash blossoms, singed and crispy on a layer of bubbled mozzarella like blooms dried between the pages of a wedding album. You can barely make out the ghostly imprints of Italian anchovies crisscrossing the surface — but you’ll taste them, salty and marine like a wave smacking you across the mouth.
Francesco has a bunch of tricks, including sprinkling the surfaces with water to prevent burning and laying raw ingredients right onto the dough, so the juices seep into and flavor the pizzas as they cook. This works beautifully nine out of ten times. The tenth being the shingles of rosemary-sprinkled Yukon Golds on the sausage-potato pizza. They were just underdone, but not so badly that I didn’t scarf the slice down anyway — along with a classic margherita dotted with creamy fiore di latte and its cheeseless marinara cousin, sweet and scarlet from the crushed tomatoes Crovetti sources from Campania. “People ask for more sauce on the side to dip,” he said, laughing as he explained that it’s a raw sauce that cooks in the Moretti Forni deck oven right on the pizza.
Other worthy choices: The tricolore shaded like the Italian flag (blistered red cherry tomatoes, white fior di latte, housemade basil pesto); zucchini layered with coins of summer squash, mozzarella and ricotta; the cotto and funghi, featuring cremini mushrooms under a blanket of cooked prosciutto; and a pancetta-and-mozzarella take on carbonara finished with squiggles of yolk-enriched Pecorino cream.
Aside from pizza, there are breaded and fried potato croquettes touched with mint, and suppli — Rome’s ovoid take on fried rice arancini — that crack oven to reveal molten centers of ground beef, tomato sauce and mozzarella. Salads are smallish but get the job done if you’re the type that needs to balance pizza with leafy greens. The caesar’s croutons are made from leftover dough; the spinach salad’s walnuts are candied in house.
But pizza, this is what you came for. Traveling is in Francesco’s family DNA, but he and Alison have put down real roots in Philly. If we’re lucky they’ll stay forever.
3 Quakers – Excellent*
@rionepizza / @rionepizza / rionepizzaphilly
102 South 21st Street, 215-575-9075
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, 12 to 10 p.m. Saturday, 12 to 5 p.m. Sunday
Executive Chef: Francesco Crovetti
Owners: Francesco and Alison Crovetti
Line Cooks: Tyler Allen, Ryan Patrick, Santos A. Ramirez
Counter Staff: Erin Clancey, Dominique McCall, Roderick McCladdie-McLeod, Dan Reilley