London Pizza Round-Up, Vol 3

Franco Manca

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By sheer chance, I happened to move to London just as the fast-food-that-is-actually-bloody-brilliant revolution was kicking off in earnest (I know that sentence is awful, but I didn’t know what else to describe it all as). I was living in SE5, so I was just up the road from both Honest Burger’s and Franco Manca’s first restaurants (in Brixton Market), and duly became a regular at both places.

Both have since exploded in popularity and number of outlets – Honest with 18, and Franco Manca with an incredible 29 (including a couple on the South coast). As a previous review of Honest made clear, I have mixed feelings about this, as it can lead to huge difficulties in maintaining standards and consistency. This is something I have occasionally run into with Franco Manca – I’ve probably eaten there 20+ times now, and not all Franco Mancas are created equal…

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Anyway, to this review. I linked up with the one and only DJ Yoda for lunch at the London Fields outlet for a new year catch up, and we set about sampling their wares. Both of us had exhausted the regular menu options in our previous visits, which I will talk about later, so decided to go for the two specials – a meat one, and a vegetarian one. We also ordered a mozzarella & salami starter to share.

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The mozzarella was decent if unspectacular. However, the fennel salami was delicious, three big slices that had a very strong flavour and aroma, which worked well against the delicate milkiness of the mozzarella and the simple rocket and tomato salad.

The pizzas arrived promptly, and I must say they were lovely to look at, and instantly allayed one fear I’ve had when visiting Franco Mancas in recent years; namely, that they have sometimes had a tendency to keep the prices static and gradually reduce the amount of toppings, forcing you to pay a relatively high sum extra to get what should really be on there already, but as an extra topping. Personally, I would much rather have the extra (or reduction for that matter) built into the price as ingredients ebb and flow in cost, rather than find out that they are cutting corners when a mushroom pizza arrives with two or three tiny mushrooms (as happened to a friend some time ago) and have to wait for it to be remedied, spoiling the flow of a meal.

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But as I said – no such issues here. Mine was Franco & Lloyd mozzarella, organic tomato, cime de rapa, and capocollo from Martina Franca, for £8.25. As you can see from the pic, there’s a generous amount of tomato and mozzarella, 3 substantial pieces of capocollo, and plenty of the greens.

I am a big fan of the tomato that Franco Manca use, but the real star of their pizza is the sourdough base. You know you are on to a winner when the crusts that many people might discard are as tasty as any of the toppings. I have to say, on this occasion it seemed slightly less flavourful than it has been at other times. It was cooked to absolute perfection, the little bits of char just present enough, the crusts bubbly and chewy, but the flavour was slightly less intense than in trips I’ve had before – nothing to cry over, but noticeable. It’s a knife and fork job unless you are after very, very floppy triangles of pizza and toppings all down you chin or over your lap.

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These toppings were excellent, with the ample fat marbling of the capocollo meaning that it easily cut and pulled apart, as the heat of the pizza softened the fat running through each slice. It had a delicious, gentle flavour (it’s not too salty, presumably as it’s not brined), and that sat nicely with the cime de rapa, which I would describe as being like the world’s most skinny and delicately flavoured tenderstem broccoli  – the bread, tomato, mozzarella and toppings really were a brilliant combination, and I would happily have this again and again.

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The other pizza was Franco & Lloyd mozzarella, San Marzano DOP tomato, wild caper berries from Salina, organic kalamata olives, and watercress, at £8.15. This type of tomato is famously considered the premium for pizzas, and is slightly sweeter from this sampling, but nothing massively consequential to my tastebuds. In truth, this one wasn’t a patch on the meat special. It was perfectly decent, but lacked magic. Looking back at it, it looks like too much watercress, and something missing. Both of us agreed that the meat special was superb, and this one just good. The watercress was just a bit overwhelmingly everywhere once you started into it, and while the saltiness of the olives and caper berries is something that worked nicely with the sweeter San Marzano tomato, it just didn’t quite work for me.

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Looking at the regular menu, you can see the prices are very reasonable for a London restaurant. It’s perfectly possible for 2 people to have a great pizza and a good beer for around £20 plus whatever tip you want to leave (incidentally, I’ve almost always had good, friendly service at all the Franco Mancas I’ve eaten at, this trip was no exception). It’s good that they list which pizzas are lacking in tomato, as I’ve been caught out by this before – I know that’s the wide, wide world of pizza, but I rarely get on with the ones which lack any tomato.  The chorizo pizza in particular (number 6) is great, and £6.40 for a brilliant margarita really is stunning value in an expensive city.

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The flipside of the menu goes over a few testimonials, as well as the source of their excellent ingredients. It’s always nice to know where what you are about to eat came from, and it’s good that such a rapidly growing restaurant chain takes such things seriously, and long may that continue to spread as a practice in this industry.

As you can tell, I’m a fan. I got ridiculously excited when this London Fields branch originally opened, and have eaten there both in the restaurant and the little courtyard out the back many times now. I have run into issues when eating at the Westfield Stratford one – my paranoia makes me wonder if it’s just the food court vibe making it seem less good, but I feel confident that the standard of pizza there has failed to hit the heights that Brixton and London Fields dependably have served up, along with a couple of other London sites which I’ve been to for one-offs. I don’t know if that’s an oven issue, or the better staff not wanting to be in that environment, or maybe not feeling like the competition in that courtyard necessitates full commitment to excellence. Maybe I’ve just been unlucky, but I now wouldn’t bother going there even if hungry when I know there’s another so close.

So in summary, Franco Manca is ace. It has successfully ridden the tricky wave of sudden rapid expansion and maintained remarkably high standards in my experience, with the exceptions along the way which I’ve noted. The value is remarkable compared to many other eateries and pizzerias, and the meat special I had was a top 10 job, absolutely exceptional stuff.

Up next… oh, its only L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, which I will be visiting with a Naples native by the name of Michele, how perfect! Can it possibly live up to the hype? Let’s see!

Meat Special – 9.5/10

Veg Special – 7.5/10

Franco Manca overall score (this meal) – 9/10

Franco Manca overall score (across the chain) – 8/10

London Pizza Round-Up, Vol 2

Today, a restaurant I reviewed not that long ago, so this will be a relatively brief scan through the other items before getting to the pizza, which didn’t get much attention in my previous review.

I visited with a group of friends the other night, and while I usually stick to the antipasti and wood-fired menu, I naturally got stuck into their pizza this time. But let’s do the decent thing and quickly run through the antipasti I did sample, which was all very lovely (as were the cocktails and wine). Just to mention – this meal was bought using the 50% Monday discount fob I have, but the prices I am listing are the full price as per the menu.

So what’s up there – a selection of lamb meatballs, smoked swordfish with capers and chilli, burrata and figs, pigs cheek in a delicious jus/gravy and calamari, prawns and courgette fritti. The burrata and swordfish in particular were fantastic, and the rest very good indeed. Prices ranged from £6 for the meatballs and burrata to £9 for the calamari and prawns, which were all very reasonable to my mind.

But to the main event, the reason why we were there – the pizza. I have to say, as much as I have enjoyed their pizzas over the years, I do tend to think they are slightly overpriced in Pizza East. I went for a classic – salami, tomato, mozzarella, chilli flakes, which was priced at £14.

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The pizza itself was really good – the base done just how I like it (and amongst the 5 at the table, all the pizzas were done to perfection in that regard). The tomato was delicious, a decent amount of cheese, and clearly high quality salami. It had a solid kick to it with the chilli.

The major criticism I would have is that although the base did a great job of providing a solid platform for the toppings and an easily handled vessel to get everything in my face without need for a knife and fork, the bread itself was somewhat flavourless. I’ve grown to love those sourdough bases that are just delicious in and of themselves, turning the crusts into a treat in their own right rather than a handle to be discarded once the main part of the pizza is consumed.

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Pete to my left had the truffle pizza – I’ve had this before, and have mixed feelings about it. It’s one of those tomato-free pizzas that I’m never quite convinced about, for starters. But they put a barrel-load of cheese on their (tallegio & mozzarella), cream, and a LOT of truffle, so it wasn’t struggling for toppings. It is probably a crowd-splitter. I quite like it, but found a whole one to myself very sickly by the end, so exchanging a slice of mine for a slice of this was ideal – the overwhelming richness of the toppings gave a pleasant contrast to the spiciness and sharpness of mine, but a slice was enough. This one is £12.

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Sam to my right went for Prosciutto cotto, chanterelle, tomato, thyme, which was £13. I have to say, I think this was my favourite. The prosciutto was delicious, not at all dried out from it’s time in the oven, and the combination of flavours and textures was great. Plenty of the toppings, and it really was mouth-wateringly good.

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Nicole’s margarita was pretty straightforward – I didn’t try it, but I’d have imagined there would be fractionally more cheese on there and a bit more care when they lobbed the basil on, but there you go. £9.

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Adam went for an absolute monster – San Daniele, burrata, rocket, tomato. This one confused me a bit. It’s essentially a margarita with a charcuterie item lobbed on it after it comes out of the oven, then some burrata lobbed on that, as well as a bit of rocket. Apparently it was very nice, but it doesn’t really make sense to me in the way I view pizza, it just seems like something you’d make when you can’t decide what you want, and so decide to put everything on the same plate. The burrata at Pizza East is great though, so what the hell. This was £15.

I appear to have not taken a picture of Euan’s, so presumably he had the same as someone else!

So all in all, a very enjoyable meal, but I’m left feeling that the pizza just costs too much. You can go to Homeslice and get an absolute monster that could feed two, maybe even three people, for £20. And they are better pizzas in my opinion. Franco Manca (who will be my next review!) are nearly half the price in many case. So it’s a tough one, and it’s why I always seem to order from their brilliant wood-fired menu. I like these pizzas, the toppings are clearly high quality ingredients, but they lose marks just for the simple reason of price, and also as I mentioned, the somewhat dull bread flavour.

So, all in all, a qualified success, but not quite a contender for London’s crown.

Score – 7.5/10

London Pizza Round-up, Vol 1

The Lord Morpeth, Old Ford Road, E3

Although it’s burgers that gain a place in the name of this blog, it’s pizza that I truly love. I’ve mentioned this before I think, and wrote quite a hymn to Homeslice. But you know what? I have some huge gaps in my London pizza knowledge, and what better time to fix that than the beginning of 2017? My new year’s resolution? More pizza.
And so to the first contender. I didn’t travel far.

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The Lord Morpeth is an old East End boozer that has changed considerably since I first moved to the neighbourhood around the 2012 Olympics. It was very, very old school at that point – the couple of times I ventured in, there were a couple of elderly locals nursing drinks silently at the bar, a pretty unfriendly and curt barman serving me my drinks. The reception was, if not icy, then certainly below lukewarm. The odd flyer in the window would advertise Chas & Dave tribute nights and the like, once even a Sunday evening Q&A with Greavsie, arguably the greatest striker England have ever had.

Nothing about it made me particularly want to return, but when it shut down for a refurb and reopened, I started hearing reports about it knocking out some excellent pizza, and kept seeing an A-board out front advertising this. Being a cynical old sod, I assumed that there was no way a genuinely good pizzeria had just opened a few yards from my front door, and so I didn’t sample the place for several months.

How wrong I was – they do actually make really, really good pizza. And so, barely a few days into 2017, I grabbed a neighbour and headed down there to launch my new series exploring London’s best pizza joints.

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We ordered ourselves a Diavola and a Siciliana, two that I’ve tried and tested before. I’ve probably sampled about half the menu to be honest! But this was a nice combination of a spicy devil and a salty thirst-enabler (the better to get those pints down).

Up first – the Siciliana (Margherita, Black Olives, Anchovies, Garlic Oil & Oregano). This is not a pizza I would have guessed I’d enjoy a year ago, but when some friends came for a mix at mine a few months back, the girl in the party ordered this, and I was quite taken by it. I don’t think I could handle a whole one on my own – it’s really very salty – but it is very nice as something to add variety when you’re ordering a couple or more.

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One thing I rather like about this is the way the olives are on there – finely chopped, or even minced, practically like a tapenade, as opposed to slices as you’d normally see, or even worse, as whole black olives, which just doesn’t work at all for me. The tomato sauce at the Lord Morpeth is doled out quite generously and is very tasty, and rather sweet, which works well against all the salt in the black olives and anchovies.

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As you can see, the base is super-thin. Yet even this thin, with this much tomato, these slices handle brilliantly to pick up and eat without any need for cutlery or worries about the slice flopping into your lap – they really are brilliantly done in terms of getting the base just crispy enough, but not burning it. There’s ample cheese on there, and a good, even spread of ingredients. It won’t be for everyone, but I’m a fan.

Next up is the Diavola (Margherita, Salamino Piccante, Hot Chillies).

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This one really packs a punch. The barman brought over a chilli oil (warning us to take it easy as its a hot one), but I knew enough to know this pizza doesn’t need it. Now, I love a spicy meal. I have an insane collection of hot sauces and seasonings in my kitchen. But there was one slice in this that literally took my breath away (it’s 7.30-9pm, with the green and red chillies at the tip). I spoke like someone who’d had a tracheotomy for a good few minutes after that one.

This was a fantastic pizza. Again, the tasty tomato sauce worked well in combination with the toppings, sweet and spicy is a great combo. The salami is wonderful quality, in generous slices. I suspect they carve it themselves, as there were different thicknesses on there, which added a pleasant variety to the textures.

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The sourdough bread in the pizza does, as I mentioned earlier, handle like a champ. I absolutely hate pizza that flops around and you end up having to fold it up into some weird dumpling to eat it. Fine, if they’ve served it on a plate with a knife and fork, then so be it, that’s the way I’ll eat it. But just before New Year I went to Homeslice, and it was a disaster – I didn’t like the toppings on either half, and the base was a nightmare to handle, served with no option but to eat with my hands. It was the first bad experience I’ve had there, and it’ll be interesting to see how they fare when I return for this series.

However, the dough here at Lord Morpeth does let itself down in one key regard – it’s nowhere near as tasty as that at Franco Manca or Homeslice. Great texture, lovely chewy crusts, but the flavour isn’t there to my mind. Fortunately, that’s not a disaster when you have such great tomato sauce and toppings as here, but it’s a black mark nonetheless. At Franco Manca the crusts are a real treat, so tasty are they.

The prices were fair across the menu, and drinks are very reasonably pitched too – I had a couple of pints of good lager for £4 each, and other drinks reflect that sort of relative value for London. The staff have always been very friendly when I’ve been in, and it gets a nice mixed crowd of people, some locals, some obvious newcomers such as myself (the accent is a dead giveaway)! They show the football, the music they play is decent, all in all it’s a great neighbourhood pub. If only it had a pool table (thank you Eleanor Arms for scratching that itch!).

So, a strong pace-maker to get this race underway. It’s hard to decide what score to give when it’s the first one, but I think it’s fair to go for…. *drumroll*

Siciliana 7.5/10

Diavola – 8.5/10

Overall Score 8/10