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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.