The tattoo is inked in script on Marco Massaro’s left arm, just beneath the image of Italy.
“Whatever way it goes, it will be God who wants it.”
The message seemed prescient when he opened Massa Roman Square Pizza & Italian Specialties in Scotch Plains in November 2018, quickly establishing it as one of New Jersey’s best new pizzerias.
Massaro had been a computer programmer for 15 years in Italy, before moving to the United States and deciding “he needed a new passion/hobby,” says his wife, Jen Massaro.
“He taught himself to make dough by reading books, watching videos and making lots of experiments in our basement,” she says.
That hobby grew into a business — and a successful one. I first visited Massa Roman Square Pizza early last year, and it appeared on my list of N.J.’s 20 best new pizzerias. I later chose its Amatriciana pizza as the single best thing I ate in 2019.
Then came the pandemic.
Massa Roman Square Pizza suffered a 50% drop in business in April and May as COVID-19 swept the state. A 30% dip followed in June and July.
But Massaro is “not going to give up,” he says, no matter how challenging the times.
Good thing. Massa Roman Square Pizza is not only the state’s best new pizzeria, but a revolutionary one, at least in New Jersey.
How is that possible? Pizza, after all, has been around forever. Flatbreads with toppings were quick, easy meals in ancient Greece and Rome. There were even references to them in Virgil’s Aeneid. Pizza as we know it, though, is generally considered to have started in 1738 when Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba opened in Naples.
Today, there’s New York-style pizza and Sicilian pizza and thin-crust pizza and Neapolitan-style pizza, even Grandmas (a thin square pizza) and Grandpas (a Grandma with extra sauce and cheese).
Massa Roman Square Pizza offers none of those. It specializes in old-school Roman-style pizza, using imported Italian flour and local, seasonal and imported toppings. That Amatriciana pizza features pancetta and black pepper (for me, a match made in pizza heaven), plus San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella and pecorino cheese.
Massaro — he of the quick, easy smile and tattooed arm — is the pizza maker. Besides his script tattoo, he also has images of a smiley face and the logo for Juventus, the Italian native’s favorite soccer team, inked on that arm.
The “Massa” in the pizzeria’s name comes from a nickname he acquired during his soccer-playing days in Italy.
“When I come here (to the United States), I didn’t speak English,” Massaro says.
He quickly learned the language at his first job, Buon’Italia, an imported Italian food shop in New York City’s Chelsea Market. Then he found that new passion.
“He started studying about fermentation, digestion and flour, and started experimenting every weekend,” says Jen Massaro, who met Marco in 2003 in Milan. Jen was there with her best friend, who is Massaro’s first cousin. “He blew out my KitchenAid mixer at one point, so he ordered me a new one…
“He certainly did not set out to be a pizza maker, especially given his computer programming/consultant background, but a passion for eating well and bringing authenticity to the forefront was a driving force. If he had to recreate himself, he did not want to be behind the computer any longer.”
Massaro flew to Naples in 2015 and earned a certificate in Neapolitan-style pizza making from AVPN — Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana. Then he visited Rome in 2018 to earn a certificate in Roman-style pizza making from Associazione Pizzerie Italiane.
All pizza-savvy Jerseyans (are there any other kind?) know Neapolitan-style pizza, a catch-all term for round pizzas baked for just a few minutes in high-heat brick or wood-fired ovens. Roman-style pizza? Not so much.
Its most distinguishing characteristic is its shape — rectangular, not round or square. In Rome, you can’t walk more than a few blocks without stumbling across a small shop offering what is known as pizza al taglio, some topped with tomato sauce (pizza rossa), olive oil and sea salt (pizza bianca), and others with eggplant, zucchini, rosemary or prosciutto cotto.
Another difference with Roman-style pizza is the dough. It’s made with more water, and it’s placed to rise at both ambient temperature and in the refrigerator. The result is a less dense, more airy crust. The dough’s high moisture level causes airy bubbles to form. The result: a pizza that tastes less filling than others.
The fermentation period for Neapolitan pizza is generally 24 hours. For Roman-style, it’s 72 hours for “maximum digestibility” — the fermentation process breaks down the natural sugars, making the dough more digestible.
“By allowing all of this time for the flour to mature, the sugar decomposes during the process instead of in your stomach,” Jen Massaro explains.
Massaro also uses non-genetically modified organism (GMO) Italian flour, which is unbleached and unbromated (bromate, an oxidizing food additive, is banned in many countries, but not in the U.S.).
“I like the taste,” he says. ”It’s better for me. The pizza is more light. When you eat it, you don’t feel the weight.”
In Italy, Roman-style pizza is sold by weight. At Massa Roman Square, pizza is sold by the slice and pan. Pizzas by the slice range from $2.75 to $4, half-pan pizzas (12 inches long) from $13.75 to $20 and full-pan pizzas (24 inches) from $27.50 to $40. $40 for a pizza sounds steep, but it’s a two-foot-long pizza and would feed half an army.
Jen Massaro says her husband is the only person she knows in New Jersey to have a certificate in teglia — pan — pizza making from the Associazione Pizzerie Italiane. It hangs on the pizzeria’s wall.
There are only a handful of places in New Jersey that offer Roman-style pizza besides Massa Roman Square Pizza. They include Qua in Manasquan, Bread & Salt in Jersey City and Haddon Culinary in Collingswood.
Massaro uses a Moretti Forni electric oven that cost him $15,000. Pizzas take about 15 minutes to cook at 600 degrees. The pizzas are Roman, but the toppings skew toward traditional Neapolitan.
There’s a Marinara pizza with San Marzano tomatoes, garlic, extra virgin olive oil and oregano. There’s the Amatriciana, with San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella, pancetta, pecorino cheese, black pepper and extra virgin olive oil. And there’s the Parma, a white pie with mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, arugula, prosciutto di parma, shaved parmigiana and EVOO.
When Massaro runs out of dough, that’s it, no more pizza. You can call and order a pizza in advance, though, avoiding the dough cut-off point.
The pizzeria opened in a space formerly occupied by a frozen yogurt shop. It appeared on my list of N.J.’s 20 best new pizzerias less than a year later.
“The greatest traffic and sales lift we had last year was the weekend the first article dropped online,” Jen said earlier this year. “Additionally, the majority of new customers that continue to come in mention the good ol’ newspaper article too (the story also appeared in The Star-Ledger). There’s power in trusted, curated content.”
Massaro makes salads and sandwiches, although he reduced the menu this spring and summer. He also closed the pizzeria for two weeks in late March as he and Jen went into self-imposed quarantine as a precaution. He stayed at her mom’s house, while Jen stayed with their 5-year-old son at the couple’s home.
While indoor dining has returned in New Jersey, it doesn’t mean much for the compact pizzeria.
“Our 25% is six people,” Jen explains. “Bringing six people in here is not going to make or break anything.”
But COVID-19 is “from a business perspective, a field of opportunity to do different things,” she says. The pizzeria has teamed up with Ciao Amici in Cranford to offer pizza-making classes at Massa Roman Square every Tuesday night.
The Massaros would love to open a “hole-in-the-wall” slice shop somewhere, maybe Down the Shore. But all dreams have been put on hold for now. The pizzeria, open Thursday to Sunday for much of this spring and summer, is now open Wednesday through Sunday. The Massaros hope to resume its pre-pandemic Tuesday-Sunday schedule at some point.
Until some semblance of normalcy returns, Massaro will rely on the quality of his food to get through this trying time for restaurants.
The style of pizza is not the only thing that separates Massa Roman Square Pizza from your average neighborhood pizzeria.
“News flash — he’s from Italy!” Jen says of her husband. “So the way he’s cooking is the way Italians are eating. We’re used to Italian-American (food in this country). But we don’t have chicken cutlets. We don’t put meatballs on our pizza. We don’t put pasta on our pizza. We don’t have chicken parm.” She laughed.
“And we don’t toss our pizza in the air!”
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Peter Genovese may be reached at [email protected].
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