Normally, when I think of dining like a queen, I don’t think of pizza. Pizzerias are quick and flavorful, casual and lively. Waiters grab your order and bring you a pie. You drink. You eat. You enjoy. And you leave.
But not at Pizzeria Assaje, Bergamo Alta’s gourmet pizzeria.
You’ll find the pizzeria tucked just outside the main cobbled streets of Bergamo Alta at the bottom of the street that leads up to the hilltop castle ruins. The sign leads to a staircase which, in turn, leads down into a courtyard and to the pizzeria itself.
Inside, several rooms are painted in pleasant hues of yellow and blue. It was just me and the dog, as my partner was out of town, and they led us to a corner table for two where I tucked Luna under the chair on a jacket and read studiously through the menu.
According to the menu, dough is made in the style of Naples (where pizza was born) and leavened in a special, temperature-controlled room to ferment for upwards of 30 hours. This makes the pizza easier to digest and more fragrant.
Excited and hoping the menu proved true, I ordered a margherita – tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, and fresh basil. It’s named after the former Italian queen and meant to represent the flag (red, white, and green).
But before the pizza, out came two surprises. A small taster of sparkling wine and a plate of salty, yeasty fried dough balls. Was this an amuse-bouche at a pizzeria? Was the chef telling us something special about the food? I’d never had a pizzeria bring me a pre-meal taster, and I was delighted.
I asked my waiter if he spoke English (no) or Spanish (yes) and then asked in my not-particularly-in-practice Spanish about the little balls of dough. They’re made from the pizza dough, he explained. Fried up to showcase it. They must be very proud of their dough, I thought, a little thrilled, as I sipped my sparkling wine and bit into the first dough ball, letting the salty, yeasty flavor spread across my tongue, enhanced, perhaps, by the bubbles.
Then came my margherita, with its perfectly imperfect crust. Pizzas here are cooked in a traditional brick pizza oven and come to the table with the wonderful, characteristically slightly uneven crust shape and charring along the edges that comes with the traditional, hand-made method of pizza-making. There’s no false symmetry here; the pizzas were clearly made by hand and cooked traditionally.
The flavor matched what my eyes had already told me: this was real, hand-made Naples-style pizza.
Pizza in Italy is served whole with a fork and knife and Italians eat it as such. I usually start out politely cutting mine up, but very quickly devolve into cutting slices and eating with my hands American style, especially if the pizza is good. This one was and I took approximately five bites before I started hacking off big slices and licking my fingers.
With about a third of the pizza left over, I asked for a takeaway box. The waiter brought me two: the first with my pizza and the second a surprise gift of those golden dough balls. He then coaxed me into ordering an Italian liquor (I chose lemon, though they also had pistachio and melon) and lingering at the table with my book.
The lemon liquor (also known as limoncello), he explained, came from Naples, which is fitting since that’s also where pizza comes from. I’d tried limoncello from Cinque Terre years ago and remembered it being sharper and less creamy, but this version was good too. Creamy and warming and a clear sign that there was no rush: this is an Italian dining room. Eat. Drink. Put your feet up. Linger for hours over dinner if you want.
Our other Bergamo restaurant experiences were a bust, but Assaje was perhaps the most hospitable pizzeria I’ve ever been to. For good pizza, traditionally cooked, and even better service, go here.
Address: Largo di Porta S. Alessandro,1 Bergamo 24129
Phone: +39 035256383
Hours: Open daily from 11:45 – 15:30 and 18:45 to 00:30.
Price range: My whole bill – pizza and an after-lunch drink – cost me 9 euros.
What (else) to do in Bergamo
The castle ruin on the hill above Bergamo Alta is worth the walk (or funicular ride, if you prefer). The old town is a charmer, though you can easily see the whole thing in a couple hours. And if you’re staying overnight, we loved the comfort and elegance of Gombit Hotel (where we stayed for free for another story).