London Pizza Festival, 2018

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Long time readers of this blog may remember my post last year about the 2017 edition of London Pizza Festival, Daniel Young‘s brilliant annual event. That was my first trip to a LPF, and this year is the 4th time it has been held.

The format is simple – punters buy their tickets (all in mine cost me £30.77), and in exchange, 6 vendors create their pizzas, and attendees get 1/4 of each of the 6 pizzas (as well as a beer or soft drink, plus free bottled water and coffee), then vote for their favourite. The winner last year was Adomme, from Streatham, and very fine it was too (although my favourite was the Sud Italia effort!). The popularity of the event was proved by it selling out well in advance!

This year, the contenders were The Perfectionists’ Cafe, Wandercrust, Santa Maria, Hai Cenato, Mother and ‘O ver. A handy pizza tasting tips card was part of the welcome package, with advice from the highly respected Gino Sorbillo. Also available were Italian sweets at the cannoli stand – although who was eating these after 6 pizza slices I’m not sure! They looked great though.

The weather Gods were smiling, and treated us to a gloriously sunny May afternoon at Borough Market. I was with a pair of old friends from Nottingham and their partners, and we arrived just in time for the 2pm session (to avoid massive queues it is broken up into 4 time-slots I believe).

In we went, to be instantly handed a welcome bottle of ice cold sparkling water on this lovely day. We got our bearings, and then headed to the nearest stall – ‘O ver, a new name for me.

Of all the stalls, these guys seemed to have understood the importance of presentation most, on a day when a lot of people had their cameras out! The stall was immaculately laid out, and they took great care in explaining what was on their pizza and why – even showing us the bottles of sea water that they use in creating the dough. Smoked mozzarella, chiodini mushrooms, pancetta arrotolata, black pepper, and fresh basil. This was a wise choice as the opening pizza, as it had by far the most subtle combination of flavours, which might have been spoiled slightly if we’d come to it later on.


The crust was immaculate, and the wafer thin, fatty slice of pancetta glistened as the sun above and pizza below gently melted it slightly. The tiny mushrooms popped up every few mouthfuls, and all in all it was agreed to be a very decent start to proceedings – simple, light, uncomplicated, with a very flavourful crust to enjoy once the toppings had gone down.

Next up, Hai Cenato, Jason Atherton‘s NYC/Italian place in Victoria – confit lamb neck, spiced aubergine, ras el hanout, mozzarella, yoghurt, mint. A bit of a curveball, but then the one I plumped for last year was one of the more leftfield offerings. First up – watch this video. That’s some stretchy dough right there – apologies for portrait mode, it was filmed for Instagram stories!

 

This probably had an even tastier crust than the first, but the group was quite split over it’s merits. I liked it, the combination of flavours worked well to my palate, but would say it was maybe only a 7 or 8 out of 10. It definitely improved when I added a few chilli flakes and a little chilli oil to it to give it some extra zip. I’m all for experimentation with pizza toppings, and this one worked in my opinion – but it was a very middle eastern experience for a pizza, which I think hurt it in the final vote.

We took this opportunity to go and grab our free drinks (I had a very nice Dalston’s Lemonade, the others mainly went for Five Points Brewing Co beers). While enjoying these we had a little wander around – there was a lovely atmosphere, a really nice friendly bunch attending, with the DJs providing the usual selection of classic funk and soul, delivered on their own 7 and 12 inch platters!

Round 3 – Mother’s Tribute pizza. Tomato sauce, Prosciutto di Bigoncia, Parmigiano Reggiano, Pecorino Romano, fresh basil, fresh oregano, black pepper. Of all the pizzas, this was maybe the most traditional. As we waited in line, we were able to sample some of the ham, and one of the staff sprayed a little of the sea water they use on the back of our hands to let us get a sniff of it. It was definitely sea water! I’d never known of this approach before, apparently it means using less added salt, and introduces various minerals and so on to the dough that are beneficial.

I really liked this one – It was probably my favourite so far in the afternoon, although the crust was not as good as either of it’s predecessors. A couple of the guys suggested it had too much tomato on it, but the sauce was so tasty that I was happy for it to be smothered in it! The combo of toppings worked very well together, the fresh herbs giving a lovely fresh, floral note against the sweet tomato and salty cheese and ham. It wasn’t especially adventurous, but was certainly very well executed.

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Next up, we made out way to The Perfectionist Cafe queue – a simple sidestep from where we were already. Having done literally no research about the contenders until the day of the event, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that there was a Heston Blumenthal offering, having recently been to his incredible, triple Michelin-starred restaurant The Fat Duck for one of the most amazing meals of my life. I should really knock up a little write up for that, keep your eyes peeled!

The Perfectionist Cafe can be found at Heathrow of all places, airport food must be improving! Anyway, to the pizza – San Marzano Tomato, buffalo mozzarella, buffalo ricotta, ‘Nduja, confit tomatoes, Parmigiano Reggiano.  The mountain of incredibly fresh ricotta (apparently made less than a week ago) was incredible (they let us have a little spoon of it each, as well as the blobs on our pizza).

This one… this one was the star of the show for me. A truly excellent pizza. The flavours combined brilliantly, one moment the heat of the ‘Nduja rolling in, the next the intense sweetness of the confit tomatoes, the blobs of that ricotta and the mozzarella bringing light, creamy notes to proceedings, and the sprinkling of Parmigianno Reggiano a little umami touch. The crust was excellent too. I absolutely loved this slice.

But from glancing occasionally at the scoreboard, we could see that it was developing into a 2-horse between Perfectionist Cafe and our next pitstop, Wandercrust.

Their pizza showcased San Marzano Tomato, mozzarella, Ventricina salami, Roquito peppers, Moon chilli honey and fresh basil. This one was a beauty to look at, and their finishing touch of drizzling the Moon chilli honey (a London-made honey infused with scotch bonnets) across the pizza was one to get the people salivating.

This was another belter of a pizza, the dominant sensations being the dalliance between sweet and spicy, as embodied in the Roquito peppers. I personally felt that the Moon chilli honey was a misstep – the flavour was pleasant enough, but I didn’t care for the slick mouth-feel that honey brought to the party. But in spite of this, I would probably have this down as my 2nd or 3rd favourite slice of the day. The salami was excellent, and the overall pizza thoroughly delicious. Indeed, this pizza did get at least one vote from our group (possibly more, my memory is failing me there though!). As the photos and short video above suggests, the crust was excellent too.

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And the final pizza was one I was looking forward to – Santa Maria. I’d eaten at their Ealing restaurant a few years ago, and recently at their new Fitzrovia outlet. Both times the pizza has been excellent, although served on a plate to be eaten with a knife and fork, so a somewhat different experience to this slice extravaganza!


Their offering comprised San Marzano tomato, smoked mozzarella (and how beautiful that was to look at as they sliced away at it!), salami piccante, burrata, crumbled tarallo, Grana Padano, and fresh basil. The crumbled tarallo was the eye catcher here – taralli being a kind of biscuit or cracker from southern Italy. This added a lovely crunchy note, I think there may have been nuts in the taralli too. It brought to mind a pizza I had at Yard Sale by Anthony Falco, which has breadcrumbs on it. It’s a detail I’ve rarely seen, but I’m a fan.


The toppings on this were fantastic, right up there with the Perfectionists’ Cafe effort – however, I felt that the base and crust let it down somewhat. By comparison to the other 5, it seemed a doughy and heavy – I’d have to go back to Santa Maria to try another to check if that’s by design, I’d never noticed it before there, but of course when I’ve eaten there before I’ve not sampled 5 other pizzas in advance! It was still tasty – it just had a texture I didn’t much care for by comparison.

Despite that, I would still have this one slipping into 3rd place behind Wandercrust, as the toppings selection was right on the money. I’m a sucker for Burrata, which paired off well against the smoked mozzarella, the salami had just enough spice, and the tomato (San Marzano again, proving it’s worth by being the sauce on my 3 favourites) absolutely spot on. These toppings on one of the other bases may well have been my winner, but there you go – it takes all sorts to make up the pizza galaxy!

And there you have it – 6 very good slices indeed. As I’ve mentioned, my pick was Perfectionists’ Cafe, with Wandercrust and then Santa Maria in silver and bronze positions. But the other 3 were all damn fine slices in their own right too, I’d say that not a single slice was less than a 7 or 8 out of 10. I will certainly be adding them all to my “to-do” pizza list!

We treated ourselves to a much needed pick me up from the free coffee stall to stave off the food coma, and made our way off into the sunny London afternoon!

In the popular vote, Wandercrust triumphed, pipping Perfectionsts’ Cafe by 219 votes to 215! An incredibly tight result, reflecting the quality of both.

I’d like to also say thank you to Daniel Young and his team, for making such a brilliant event for pizza lovers. The whole thing ran incredibly smoothly, the crowd was lovely, the teams competing all fantastic, friendly and helpful, the queues short, and crucially, the pizza excellent.

At a time when lots of amateurs are trying to hop on the food festival bandwagon without a clue how to do it properly, this is a shining beacon of how to run an event, and I for one know that I will be buying a ticket for next year’s the moment they become available!

Radio Alice x Club Mexicana

This will be short and sweet – I’ve reviewed Radio Alice before, although I think I was a little harsh in the score I gave (7.5/10 at the time); it has since become a firm favourite in my pizza adventures.

To business – for 5 weeks Radio Alice is hosting a different guest pizza each week. I missed the opening week with Bubble Dogs, the hotdog specialists. This week, it’s Club Mexicana. They are based at The Spread Eagle, a vegan pub (more fun than it sounds apparently), and are very highly thought of by many of my friends.

This offering brings jackfruit carnitas, pink onion, salsa verde, sour “cream” and coriander to Radio Alice’s incredible trademark sourdough bases.

First up – it looks beautiful.

Next, it is absolutely delicious, a very gentle Mexican spice note underpinning it, a welcome crunch to the pink onion, the tomato just sweet enough, a genuinely excellent combination of toppings. The base is light and flavourful, the crusts bubbling up delightfully. I’m generally not a fan of coriander, but this worked really well both aesthetically and to the palate. For a pizza it is very light and fresh feeling thanks to the great combination

All in all, an absolute triumph, I think possibly even better than the Yard Sale x Biff’s Jack Shack “Jack To The Future” pizza which I reviewed here. I’ve always wondered how a pizza could exist without cheese, and these two have made me sure that it can be done. I mean, I still would prefer it to be smothered in lovely melted cheese and all that, but vegan pizzas appear to have worked out how to please even committed cheesaholics such as myself. More power to them, and for now, I heartily recommend that you try to get down to Radio Alice and try this before it’s gone.

Score – 9/10

London Pizza Round-Up, Vol 7

Mama Dough, Brixton

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So far in my round up for London’s best pizza joints, there’s been a definite Eastern bias, a product of where I live and where I spend the majority of my time socially and with gigs. However, this last Sunday I had the opportunity to expand my horizons somewhat, courtesy of a Bonobo gig at Brixton Academy (Bonobo featuring on the blog last May in fact!). I have been eyeing up Theo’s in Camberwell for some time, and hopefully will be visiting them later this week, but for this one I looked closer to my final destination, and hit upon Mama Dough. I’ve passed by that a couple of times and fancied that it looks good, the reviews online were generally favorable, and so a booking was made.

On arrival at 6pm on a Sunday it was relatively quiet, somewhere around 1/3 full. The restaurant is a spacious, open well-lit place on a street corner on the way toward Camberwell, the kitchen and pizza oven in full view, and some nice modern art adorning the walls, with a rough & ready decor of exposed brick and wood. I ordered a glass of very decent Rioja (£4) and waited for my friend to arrive while I took in what they had on offer.

The menu certainly appealed to me, and had a decent amount of variation in the pizza toppings, especially when you factored in the specials board (which annoyingly I forgot to take a picture of, whoops). The starter selection is a bit on the thin side, but that’s forgivable. The drinks selection is pretty simple and, from what we had, high quality stuff at very reasonable prices.

We ended up ordering a special,the Lady Royale (with tomato, burratina, basil and pesto, £11), and the cured meat pizza (with tomato, mozzarella, salami napoli, salami calabrese, parma ham and chilli, £10.50). My friend order a Kraken rum and homemade ginger ale (£6) which was nice enough that it became my 2nd drink of the night.

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When the pizzas arrived, I have to say they were beautiful – in particular, the Lady Royale which was like Jackson Pollock in a more orderly moment had turned his hand to Italian food. And this proved to be the star of the show – the cured meat pizza was decent, but not outstanding. The base was pleasingly crispy and bubbly, and held together well throughout, but not especially flavourful for a sourdough effort. The meats were larger cuts, which made divvying the pizza into slices a little bit trickier than it really needed to be. The meat itself was good quality and tasty though, so I’m nitpicking a little there.

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The Lady Royale, on the other hand, was outstanding. Absolutely delicious, and quite different to any pizza I’ve had before. There was a lot more tomato on this than the other offering, a deep red covering the whole base, and atop this the incredibly creamy, delicate burratina, the generous drizzlings of a lovely, fresh-tasting pesto and a huge handful of fresh basil. The flavours combined wonderfully well, the abundance of sauces and burratina making for an incredibly satisfying, juicy mouthful each time, yet even by the last slice the base was still doing it’s job as a handheld vessel to safely get this delicious team of tastes into my mouth.

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The service was more than a little wonky, even while being friendly – more than a few times I needed service, but ended up waving and trying to call attention to no avail, so was sat without a drink a few times. Also, we had to wait ages for the bill, then after that arrived they never came to take payment, so we had to walk to the bar to make payment; as a result, this was one of the very rare occasions that I didn’t tip (I’m normally a pretty generous tipper by UK standards, about 15-20% if I’ve been treated well, and very, very rarely fail to tip or ask to take off the service, which in London is usually 12.5%). They only had two waiting staff on, and by the time we left it was pretty much full, but there was no indication from them to us that they were struggling with the numbers or short-staffed, and none of the turbo “walking” from A to B that I’ve seen at so many busy restaurants over the years when they are trying to manage a busy room. They just came across as a bit lackadaisical, with a blind spot for us in the far corner.

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But that Lady Royale pizza… make no mistake, if I get chance to eat that again, I will do, sketchy service or not. It was absolutely wonderful.

Lady Royale – 9/10

Cured Meat Pizza – 7.5/10

Service 5/10

Overall score – 7.5/10

London Pizza Round-Up, Vol 5

Radio Alice – Hoxton

Since commencing this attempt at going round London’s pizza scene, I’ve been inundated with recommendations for places I’d not previously heard of. Arguably the most surprising to me was Radio Alice, as I have a monthly residency DJing a few yards away at Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen‘s Friday night party Night Call. But several people told me it is excellent, and so a dinner was booked alongside my friends Rich and Elliot (a fine pair with excellent knowledge of food and drink from their work in hospitality over the years).

We took our seats and perused the very appealing menus. After a little discussion we settled on Burrata (£5.50), speck and apricots (£6) and anchovies with bread and butter (£3) as our starters, and then the pork sausage (£9.90), Anchovy (£8.50) & nduja (£10) pizzas. We were asked if we’d like the pizzas to arrive together or as soon they came out of the oven – as we were sharing we asked for the latter.

 

Even going out for a meal I end up stuck behind the decks

The starters arrived, and very well presented they were too. In particular, the burrata excited my tingle zone. I love burrata. This was an excellent example, one of the best I’ve had in London. Delicate and creamy, with the oil, pepper and oregano generously added to it offering a wonderful counterpoint. The speck was fragrant, delicious, and remarkably lean. I actually would have preferred a tiny bit more fat on there, which is not something I would normally say about cooked meats. The anchovies were pleasantly meaty and as salty as you’d expect, although personally I far prefer the white anchovies known as boquerones. Given the progressing strength of the flavours in play, it was pretty much essential to eat the items in the order I just described them, or risk spoiling the experience of something as simple and light on the tongue as a good burrata.

 

Anchovies, red onion, lemon zest, tomato, oregano
Elliot in his happy place
Bubbly

 

Pizza number one to arrive was the anchovy one. Presentation was immaculate, and cheese was notable by it’s absence. As the photo above shows, the bread was cooked to perfection, with seemingly a little sprinkling of semolina flour giving it that particular dusted texture on the crusts, which were springy and spongey in just the right way, while the base held together to be eaten by hand as slices brilliantly. They weren’t quite as tasty as the crusts at Franco Manca at it’s best or Homeslice. The tomato was relatively crudely chopped/crushed compared to the sauces most pizzas would have on, and I rather liked that. The sweetness of the tomato and red onion worked nicely against the saltiness of the anchovy, and I have to say that the lemon zest (which was one of the main reasons I ordered this one, from sheer curiosity) was a stroke of genius, lifting the whole thing with it’s citrus notes. So we were off to an excellent start with a very good pizza indeed.

 

Nduja, caciocavallo, tomato

 

Up next was the nduja offering. I was first made aware of this spicy, spreadable meat through it’s use by Pizza Pilgrims (who will feature soon in this round-up), and it does work well on a pizza. This presentation did confuse me somewhat though – the caciocavallo cheese was clearly added immediately before being sent to the table, resulting in a pile of unmelted dairy atop the blob of nduja. The base was perfectly cooked again, the tomato once more very tasty in it’s somewhat cruder form than most use. But the cheese… why not just show it to the heat of their oven for a moment to creating a little cheesy envelope for the nduja? That would seem the obvious approach, whereas this left a pile of grated, sweating cheese that didn’t really do it for me visually or on my palate. The nduja itself seemed strangely tame as well, and the pizza as a whole didn’t quite sing. A perfectly respectable effort in the grand scheme of things, but we were all a little disappointed after the slightly unexpected heights of the first arrival at the table.

 

Pork sausage, tomato, parmigiana reggiano, black pepper

 

Pizza number 3, and the meal was sitting on the edge of a razor blade – able to be a true top contender, or merely in the chasing pack. This one – pork sausage, parmigiana reggiano, tomato, black pepper. Interestingly, although again seeming to using the crudely crushed tomatoes as seen on the previous two pizzas, this one seemed a lot “wetter” than the previous two, with some small amount of standing liquid. But it looked the business – a good sausage pizza can really be fantastic, and if I’d had to choose one ahead of the meal to have, it would have been this. The sausage was good and meaty, but the pizza as a whole lacked a certain something. To me, the sausage wasn’t strongly flavoured enough – it needed a much more herby, aromatic meat on there, or the addition of something alongside it to bring the package to life. On the first, the lemon zest just elevated the whole thing to a higher level – both of the follow ups lacked that killer “punch”, that certain something on your tastebuds that really excites you. A more interesting, intense sausage flavour on this and it would have been excellent – as it was it was “just” pretty good.

To be clear, these were not bad pizzas at all. The bases were all absolutely bang on, the ingredients clearly high quality, and I did like the tomato very much. I also appreciate that there is clearly thought going into doing these in somewhat unusual ways that differ from pizza to pizza. But 2 of the 3 were unfortunately in the “nearly, but not quite” category where they didn’t get my juices flowing in the way they had been ready to.

The service was very friendly and helpful, and the meal with a few beers and a bottle of very good house red wine clocked in at about £30 each including service. It is a restaurant I would happily recommend, and will almost certainly revisit to try some more of their pizzas as they are definitely a place that takes pizza very seriously – hell, look at this for a pizza oven, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one so high-tech.

In summary, a qualified success from a restaurant that is obviously unafraid to try out some ideas others might back away from. Worth seeking out and giving a go if you are in the area.

Starters – 8/10

Anchovy pizza – 8.5/10

Nduja Pizza – 7/10

Sausage Pizza – 7/10

Overall score 7.5/10

London Pizza Round-Up, Vol 4

L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele – Stoke Newington


The last ten years has seen a revolution in the standard of food in London. Few areas is this improvement more rapid than in the world of pizza, but last autumn a man who is in the rare category of having eaten more pizza than me (Daniel Young of Young & Foodish) posted online about a very, very exciting development. A pizzeria reputed to be arguably the greatest in the world was heading to London. Rumours of opening dates swirled, reports of a 2300kg oven surfaced. Much anticipation built.

And then, it was announced that they would open on Friday February 3rd. Photos of gigantic crowds of people queuing outside on the opening evening were posted, and early reports were uniformly favourable. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where my next stop on my round-up had to be.

So, exactly a week after it opened, I headed down to L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele with an Italian by the name of Michele – the thoroughly excellent Miky J.

We arrived at roughly 1pm on Friday afternoon. A small cluster of people were huddled outside, but no obvious sign of what the process to get a table was – I asked, and was told I had to go inside to get a ticket. In I popped, to the very smart, simple restaurant (which holds maybe 30 or so diners at a time), scanned around and went over to the nearest staff member, who was at the till. This bit, I’ll put down to the sheer volume of customers in a brand new restaurant with new staff being a bit like someone trying to land safely on a treadmill going at 30mph – I was literally ignored for maybe 5 minutes as I stood there patiently and politely waiting for her to finish whatever she was doing (various bits and bobs for various tables), with no “be with you in a second” comments or gestures, not even eye contact. Not the end of the world, but pretty poor form on the customer service front. Once they turned to me, I asked if I needed a ticket, told her it was for 2, grabbed my ticket and headed back outside to the snowy London afternoon. After 5 minutes more she emerged from the front door calling numbers. “55?” Answer came there none. “56?” Nada. “57?” The two girls I had spoken to on arrival went in. “58?” Yay! And so that wait was pleasantly brief. We were seated inside, mercifully away from the door, which seemed incapable of shutting properly, meaning the customers sat by it had to keep their winter jackets on throughout their meals, and spent as long trying to keep the door closed as eating.

The restaurant was packed. Obviously, all the seats were taken. But also all available space between seats. This is Stoke Newington. Of course there were 18712875418 giant prams in the restaurant at 1pm. Why on earth had I not considered that simple universal Stokey reality? I think I saw more babies at tables than pizzas. Mercifully, the babies were all being pretty quiet. We sat at our seat, and were handed our menus.

The menu is classically Neapolitan – a choice of margherita (£7.90), margherita with double mozzarella (£9), and two sizes of marinara (£6.90 & £7.90). We ordered a margherita and a Moretti beer each, and made ourselves comfortable.

The pizzas took a surprising amount of time to arrive given the simplicity of recipes and the short cooking time that these pizzas would have in a monster oven such as da Michele’s, and considering that there were at least 4 or 5 staff in their kitchen dealing with the several dozen customers. I didn’t time them, but I’d guess it was at least 10-15 minutes before our pizzas arrived – strangely before the girls to our right who had ordered before us, the same combo of two margheritas.

There’s no getting away from it – these pizzas looked the business. The bread was charred to just the right degree, the mozzarella melted to perfection, plenty of tomato. Time for business.


Now, this is where things get a little tricky. This was a really good pizza. Comfortably the best margherita I’ve ever had in my life, by a distance. But I’d been sold the idea that this is arguably the best pizza in the world, so I was ready to have my mind blown, and it wasn’t. The tomato was very, very tasty, nice and just about sweet enough without going overboard. The bread was good, and the mozzarella did everything you’d hope for a mozzarella to do. I would have liked more than one solitary basil leaf on such a large pizza – it gave a bit of aroma, but the mouthfuls which actually had some basil were lifted considerably. Despite plentiful tomato and a decent amount of mozzarella, there were no issues with soggy bread or standing liquid atop the pizza. I would like to try the double mozzarella option, I suspect it’s worth the extra cash. And the marinaras look great too.

I asked Michele for his thoughts, he opined that the bread and tomato both probably needed a touch more salt to bring the natural flavours out, and this was almost exactly what I had been thinking. Don’t get me wrong – it was a delicious pizza, and expertly made. You could see that all the pizzas coming out of the kitchen were cooked to absolute perfection, to a uniform standard. But it didn’t blow me away in the manner which I had hoped it would. Homeslice have a neat trick where they sprinkle the wooden board on which the pizzas are served with sea salt, which leads to little flavour bombs throughout your meal. I don’t think that would have worked here on the porcelain plates, but certainly the bread wasn’t quite there. Fractional, but when you get to the sharp end of any industry it’s the tiny percentages that make all the difference. Another thing was that because of the size of the pizza, by the time I finished it was getting quite cold – I didn’t notice if the plates were warm when they arrived at the table, but I’m a very fast eater (that happens when you grow up around 3 brothers and first to finish is first to get 2nd helpings!), so I would guess others had the same issue.

We got to talking about the nature of this sort of transition – the role of transporting ingredients that are native to Italy when such simple recipes are so dependent on the exceptional standard of what goes in to them, and whether they could ever hope to replicate the Naples experience when, for instance, they either have to change mozzarella supplier or accept that it’s not as incredibly fresh as that which they will be able to use in their original restaurant. The water supply apparently plays a key role in the dough, due to differing mineral contents – this may be apocryphal, but I’ve been told that some high end pizza places ship water about from one place to another to maintain a uniform standard for this, and country to country that’s obviously just not feasible. I don’t know what their approach is with tomatoes, whether it’s canned, or fresh that they blitz, where they are sourcing them, so it’s hard to say whether the location might be a factor there, as I’m reliably informed that tomatoes are at their best when they have never been chilled. My assumption is that there will be some fine tuning going on in the early weeks as they adjust to making pizza in a new country.

One thing I noticed which is worth mentioning is that despite us taking our sweet time over our beers, and despite a constant half-dozen-person queue outside, they made no effort to hurry us along, which I rather liked. But being completely honest, I suspect this related to the lack of attention I mentioned on arrival – we were only offered desserts after we had already asked for the bill for instance! Clearly there’s plenty of room for improvement in terms of customer handling, and they did seem a little short-staffed on the floor, whereas the kitchen was overflowing with workers, so that will hopefully improve.

I’ve never been to the Naples da Michele, but a few commenters online have suggested that Tokyo and Rome are both really, really good, while not quite at the Naples level, and it’s entirely reasonable to assume that a similar fate awaits London. There’s no shame in that, it leaves plenty of scope to become the best pizzeria in the city, and of course there is a contextual element to eating the exact same pizza in a 147 year old pizzeria in Naples vs a one week old place in N16 surrounded by prams.

Personally, I’m not one of those purists about pizzas or burgers or whatever, who feel that if you deviate from the simple form then you’re cheating – I like simple or novel toppings when they are done well, I like the variety of flavours and textures it brings, the experimentation and surprise.

I will certainly return to da Michele in the coming weeks – I’m very curious to see if the tiny improvements I feel are there to be made are made, there is definitely a lot to be said for the simplicity of a great margherita pizza done well, and believers in that as the One True Pizza will love this place. But in truth while I left satisfied, I was somewhat underwhelmed – such is the cost of building up hype to these levels if you don’t quite deliver what is being talked about. And there is much work to be done in terms of front of house service.

Pizza – 8/10

Customer service – 5/10

Overall score – 7/10

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