What pizza from a vending machine really tastes like

CNN  — 

It’s known for its ancient ruins, the seat of Catholicism and some of the world’s best pizza.

Yes, in Rome, the art of pizza is up there with the art of constructing buildings that will last for 2,000 years, and guiding one of the world’s major religions.

Compared to the original Neapolitan style, Roman pizza is thinner, flakier and crunchier, since it’s baked for a little longer. The pizzerias of Trastevere, the boho neighborhood across the River Tiber from central Rome, are lauded as some of the best places in the world to try the dish.

Now there’s another kind of Roman pizza, however – and it comes out of a vending machine.

Rome’s newest pizzaiolo (pizza-maker), “Mr. Go,” is a vending machine pumping out four types of pizza for whenever you feel like one.

Not for Mr. Go the weekly closures and afternoons off of regular pizzerias; his indefatigable metal “hands” are spinning and stretching dough, slopping on toppings and firing it all to a crisp 24/7.

The machine is the brainchild of entrepreneur Massimo Bucolo, a Sicilian living in Rome.

“There was a hole in the market – although Rome is an important city, there was nothing [foodwise] available through the night,” says Bucolo. “We never wanted to compete with a classic pizzeria.”

Owner Massimo Bucolo trained as a pizzaiolo before opening the vending machine.

In fact, Bucolo says it’s not even a real pizza. He calls it a “cross between a pizza and a piadina” – the pizza-sized flatbreads from the Emilia-Romagna region.

That’s because, he freely admits, true pizza – tossed by hand and seared in a wood-fired oven – doesn’t exactly lend itself to being cooked by a vending machine. Not least because the bubble effect, as the dough ripples up in the heat, risks causing topping slippage.

A piadina base would be thicker and denser than a pizza base – so what exactly does it taste like?

CNN Travel went to find out.

The machine starts whirring

Mr. Go is in a residential zone, between a hospital and a university area.

Mr. Go sits in a residential area of Rome, around 15 minutes’ drive from the Colosseum or Pantheon, or seven from Termini train station. This is the area called Piazza Bologna, near both a hospital and a student area – so full of people pulling all-nighters (Bucolo says he scoured Rome for a suitable place). It’s a very residential area – which is why my taxi driver is extremely confused when I hop in at the Colosseum with a tourist’s sunburn and ask to be taken here.

But as soon as I tell him what I’m going for – the newest sight to see in Rome’s 2,000 years of innovation – he knows exactly where we’re heading. “I saw it on TV!” he squeals. In fact, he’s so excited that when a family member phones him, he hoots that he is taking a foreigner to the pizza vending machine.

Not that Gianni is excited in a good way. He is firmly convinced that this will be a “schifezza” – a thing of disgust, a horror, a thing of shame. He even excuses my behavior to his family member: “Oh no, she has to for work, come on,” I hear him say generously.

We arrive. Mr. Go sits just off a busy crossroads, but this is no ugly vending machine: it sits in its own little archway, with pop music blasting. (This is to create a full experience, Bucolo says later – “For those three minutes, the place is yours.”)

Along with Gianni, a born and raised Roman who is grimly fascinated by the idea of Mr. Go, I approach the machine. It’s spotless – not only is it regularly cleaned, says Bucolo, but every two or three days it’s completely dismantled, the interior is completely cleaned, and it’s sanitized for Covid-proofing. It’s also beautifully laid out, with Italian and English instructions and notes, explaining the process and showing us what to look out for.

There are four pizzas on sale: a classic margherita, quattro formaggi (with four types of cheese), spicy salami and pancetta (a type of bacon). Gianni bans me from ordering the meat, because he’s worried about refrigeration. Later, Bucolo will explain how meticulously cooled everything is backstage, but for now, we decide to plump for a quattro formaggi, adventurous yet not so susceptible to food poisoning. It’s the most expensive, at €6 ($7). (A margherita is a mere snip at €4.50/$5.30.) The machine starts whirring.

A machine-tossed pizza

The machine has enough flour and water to make 100 pizzas at a time.

First things first: it really does make the pizza from scratch. Where cheaper takeaway pizza joints across Italy often fire up the bases during quiet periods and slap on the toppings when customers come calling, Mr. Go spins together flour and water (it has enough to make 100 pizzas), presses it into a disc, and delicately adds the toppings – all in front of your eyes.

First off, we watch the flour and water being spun into dough. Bucolo says this is an intricate process – in fact, only days before our visit, he has personally adjusted the flour-water ratio in the machine, after customer feedback that the dough was too soft. (Romans like their pizza brittle, as opposed to Neapolitans, who prefer it softer.)

After the dough has been produced, all visible through a peephole, it’s kneaded into a flat disc, picked up and moved to the next stage.

Then the tomato puree is flipped on top, followed by the toppings. They’ve been chosen specifically not to cause a mess, says Bucolo – hence there’s no veg, which could flop around or fall off. Instead, the toppings for each pizza, including the mozzarella, are premixed, prearranged and stored on plastic discs, which are kept in the ‘backstage’ refrigerator.

The pizza comes out on its preheated box.

Your chosen topping – our four cheeses, say – is then levered out on its disc and flipped onto the dough. That explains the curiously uniform blobs of salami and pancetta in the photos of the pizzas on offer.

It’s then moved onto the final stage – the ‘firing’ – where it’s levered onto what looks like a cake stand and whirled around a little oven with glowing red filaments.