One thing that is a simple reality for an amateur food blogger like myself – the restaurants visited will tend to be skewed towards the area I live and work in, which in my case is around the more central parts of East London. But when arranging a get-together of some old friends, we decided to strike out to Seven Sisters as one of the party had to get a train from Tottenham Hale. I donned my explorer’s outfit, and set off into the unknown.
A quick google for pizza places threw up LovenPresents, and some very favourable reviews.
We grabbed a drink nearby at a bar called Five Miles. A particularly sketchy man stomped into the beer garden, downed the dregs of the unattended drinks near us, sat around on his own for few minutes rubbing his head in some anguish, stomped inside, and then moments after I told the others about him, he chose to come and join us, asking us to buy him a pint before sitting down and asking all our names. We decided against inviting him into our circle, and made our way to the pizzeria. I mention this detail because it is something that some will want to consider – this is not (yet) a gentrified area, although it looks inevitable that it’s heading that way from what I saw. It’s definitely still pretty rough round the edges, it has the feel of Hackney Wick a few years ago. Essentially an industrial estate surrounded by a load of housing. Upper Street it is not. That doesn’t especially bother me, but some will find it very unsettling if they aren’t used to it. Obviously, we may have just been very unlucky. And plenty of sketchy people stomp around the more salubrious parts of Nottingham. But it feels like a relevant piece of the jigsaw, so there it is.
Lovenpresents itself is squirelled away upstairs in some sort of industrial unit, and it’s not at all obvious that there is a restaurant there unless you are looking for it. The place itself is a decent size, with the giant pizza oven and kitchen open to the left. A Tribe Called Quest – We’ve Got The Jazz was playing on arrival, which pleased me greatly, and they played ATCQ albums for the whole time we were there. Definite bonus points for this.
I was with 3 friends, so we decided the sensible thing to do was order 4 different pizzas and have a quarter of each. After much back and forth we settled on Buffalina (cherry tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, basil), Zola (Mozzarella, Gorgonzola, raddicchio, pistachios), Piccante (tomato, mozzarella, spicy salami, nduja, chillies, jalapenos), and Margot (smoked provola, sausage, mushrooms, truffle oil, parmesan). Drinks were very reasonably priced – the pizzas I felt were priced at quite a premium level given the location, so was curious to see how they were.
When they came out, they weren’t the prettiest pizzas I’ve ever been served, certainly in the case of the Zola and the Buffalina anyway, which had pretty large spaces toward the crust with no toppings. I’m not militant about pizzas being visually perfect, but that was notable. But visuals aren’t really what matters – how did they taste?
The Zola (£10) was decent, I’m a sucker for blue cheese on a pizza, although I felt that maybe there was a bit too much raddicchio and not enough pistachio. But the combo of flavours worked well. The Buffalina had it’s merits too – but 4 cherry tomato halves? Really? So the slice with a tomato was one thing, the other slice I had a very different experience. Surely a £9.50 pizza can stretch to an extra couple of cherry tomatoes so that each slice has a bit of the sweetness the set it off? And both the Zola and Buffalina had crusts that extended way too far towards the middle of the pizza for me. Nitpicking maybe? Maybe. But that’s my take, especially at the price point these were at.
I really liked both the Piccante (£11) and the Margot (£12), and no major complaints on the way these were topped either. The Piccante really had a serious kick to it, not for anyone who isn’t into genuinely spicy food. A whole one of those would get the brow sweating! The Margot was a lovely combo of flavours, with the sausage a decent quality, and the truffle oil present but not overpowering, bringing an aromatic indulgence to that one. Looking back at the pic, again it seems like the toppings were all a bit towards the centre, but I didn’t really notice that at the time, and enjoyed the pizza on it’s own terms.
The crusts on the pizzas were decent but not exceptional – a little bit doughy for my personal preference, but some prefer them that way. Not especially tasty crusts, but nothing wrong with them either.
All in all, a perfectly decent meal, but not something I’d go out of my way to repeat, and for most people in London, to go here is pretty far out of their way. Given the location (both area, and where it is in that area) I’m a little surprised that the prices are what they are, given what the prices are at competitors who I feel make pizza as good or better, but of course, I don’t know what the costs etc are in any given place, and tbf, the drinks were very well priced too.
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!
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).
Hordes of pizza lovers
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.
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.
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!
SO MUCH BURRATA
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!
The dream team!
FREE COFFEE WOOOOOO
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!
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.
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.
It’s been a long while since I added to the London Pizza Round-Up, and this time it’s with a slight twist – trying out Yard Sale‘s guest vegan pizza, the Jack To The Future. I’m intending to try out a lot more vegan and vegetarian pizzas and burgers when the opportunity arises – for the last few years I’ve gone from a very meat-heavy diet to one where I hardly eat it at all at home. This has seemed to coincide with an explosion in the popularity and availability of vegan and vegetarian food around London – much of it very good indeed.
The pizza that brought me and my friends here is a collaboration with Biff’s Jack Shack – a jackfruit themed vegan-friendly street food trader. I’ve come to really quite like jackfruit – I usually have a few cans knocking about at home, and I’ve had some excellent meals with that in there as a meat substitute. I don’t subscribe to the idea that it’s indistinguishable from pulled pork. Anyone that says that, I can only assume they’ve either never actually had pulled pork, or it’s been so long they’ve forgotten what it’s really like. But, jackfruit is a tasty and versatile ingredient in it’s own right, and it works well for the things I’ve seen it used in.
So to this meal. Yard Sale are a very well-regarded pizza joint – they were awarded “Best Cheap Eats” in the 2017 Observer Food Monthly awards, and best restaurant in the 2016 Time Out awards. They have 3 locations (Clapton, Finsbury Park, Walthamstow), with a 4th in the pipeline in Leyton. Full disclosure – I have done paid work for Yard Sale as a DJ, and they comp’d this Jack To The Future off as a freebie. I’d rather be open and honest about that – I hope you will still trust my judgement on the pizzas here.
In the pizza that brought us here, the jackfruit is served in Biff’s crispy fried style, with chipotle slaw, buffalo sauce, and blue “cheese” sauce. We also ordered a 50/50, TSB (tender stem broccoli, manchego, pine nuts, garlic and olive oil) and The Aubergine (garlic roasted aubergine, parmesan crumb and fresh basil).
As you can see from the pics, these are big ol’ pizzas – 18 inchers. Prices are about consistent with their obvious rival, Homeslice, where a 20 incher is £20.
The first we tried was the Jack To The Future. And I have to say, it is really good. The combination of flavours works brilliantly. The chipotle slaw had a surprising kick to it, and would make an excellent side in it’s own right elsewhere – I guess maybe it is at Biff’s? If it isn’t, it should be.
The buffalo and blue “cheese” wings sauce combo is an old classic, and works as well as you would expect – and the blue cheese sauce is quite amazing considering that it’s actually vegan. No idea how they did that, but it’s really good. The base at Yard Sale is one of their real strengths – very tasty, and done to perfection on both pizzas here. One of my few criticisms of Homeslice is that they sometimes under-do their pizzas a bit, so you struggle to pick them up as a slice – no such issues here.
All in all a success – ironically, it’s the jackfruit that is the least impressive ingredient. It does add a little crunch to the texture, but is only a bit-part player to the overall pizza. And for saying how many toppings are on there, and how generous they are with the sauce, the base doesn’t get at all soggy, even after it’s been sitting there for a while.
The other pizza (half TSB, half Aubergine) was a good pizza too, if not at the level of the Jack To The Future. The better half was The Aubergine, the garlic aubergine and parmesan crumb working really well together, with the generous fistful of fresh, aromatic basil a nice touch – the TSB was something of an anti-climax after being heavily recommended by several friends. It was perfectly decent, but probably the least impressive of the pizzas I’ve had at Yard Sale (I’ve been 4 times now and sampled 7 or 8 different toppings). The broccoli was cooked well, and it looked the business, but after the flavour-party of the Jack To The Future it didn’t grab me how I expected it might given the manchego and garlic combo. I think they suffered in comparison to a really interesting, unusual and well-executed special. Saying that, the tomato sauce at Yard Sale was as excellent as usual on both pizzas.
We also had a green chimichurri dip for the crusts that was amazing. Like, really, really good, I’d happily have bought a jar of that there and then for whatever it might have cost, absolutely lovely with a fresh, complex and slowly developing flavour that followed through with some real heat. 10/10 for that stuff.
So at the end of it all, a very enjoyable meal, and an excellent guest pizza (that I strongly think should become a fixture on the menu). The TSB and The Aubergine weren’t outstanding, but were good enough in their own right to recommend as vegetarian options for pizza lovers. Having eaten plenty of their offerings now, I’m happy to say Yard Sale are in my top handful of pizza joints around London.
One of the rather annoying quirks of an otherwise lovely job is that I miss out on some weekend based activities. With the previous London Pizza Festivals I had been out of town for gigs elsewhere, and so each time had to pass up the opportunity to sample the increasingly excellent offerings that the best pizzerias in London bring to the table.
No such problems this year! After a little assistance from the very helpful host, the esteemed Daniel Young (of Young & Foodish fame) I managed to purchase a pair of tickets to the shenanigans, and I invited a regular pizza compadre along for the adventure.
The event itself is held at Jubilee Place at Borough Market, and takes the form of a 6-way contest, with attendees sampling 6 quarter-pizzas, and a beer or soft drink thrown in, the tickets clocking in at £28 plus booking fee. This year, the contenders were L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, Radio Alice, Sud Italia, Addommé, Napoli On The Road, and 2015 champion Made of Dough.
First up was Addommé, from Streatham. Aubergine, tomato sauce, basil, mozzarella, parmigiano reggiano. Kind of like aubergine parmigiana on a pizza, but far more delicious than that description makes it sound! The host of the event referred to it (if memory serves!) as being real home style, comfort pizza, and that’s a great way to describe it. I loved it, as did my friend Amy. The base was pretty floppy, so it necessitated rolling and stuffing into my waiting pizza-hole, the tomato sauce was just the right level of sweetness and a great consistency for pizza, the aubergine basically melted in the mouth. A really strong start to proceedings!
Next up was Sud Italia. A bold selection of ingredients here – pumpkin, nduja, mozzarella, basil, Bleu de Laqueuille (a lovely strong, salty blue cheese), pecorino sardo DOP, parmigiano reggiano. The flames in the oven of their mobile unit were absolutely hypnotic as they snaked round, the photos don’t come close to doing justice.
The pizza – majestic. I was stunned at how good this one was – I’ve had the pumpkin sauce one at Homeslice, and to be honest it was not good and I didn’t finish it (which is quite something for my favourite pizza place). This was a delight, each mouthful a slightly different combination of sweet, savoury, salty, spicy. Just a joy to eat, even if it doesn’t look like much visually! They more than made up for this with the brilliant design of their pizza van. Loved the Naples themed art, anything to do with Maradona is alright by me!
Next up, another rather experimental selection of toppings, from Napoli on the Road. Tuna carpaccio, grated bottarga, mozzarella, yellow tomatoes, lemon oil. Amy is so militantly against fish on pizza that she declined the tuna (double tuna for me wooooooo!).
This was a strange one – I have to say I enjoyed it, but there’s no way I could have eaten a whole one. The freshness of the lemon oil worked well with the tuna, but the yellow tomatoes seemed to still have their skins on, which I personally found rather unpleasant as they were a little tough and chewy, although the flavour made up for that somewhat. A very interesting combination, a slice I’m happy I have sampled, but for me it was a gamble that didn’t quite land.
On to the 2015 champs, Made of Dough. I suspect their previous experience (and success) in this festival was brought to bear in the selection of their pizza – a crowd-pleasing Brindisa chorizo, piquillo peppers, tomato, mozzarella, basil. It looked the business, and was served with a delicious aoili (with basil in if memory serves, but I didn’t write it down), for dipping the crusts at the end, which was lovely and fragrant, very summery.
The pizza itself was very good, but we both agreed it was just lacking… something. The chorizo or the peppers could have used a fraction more heat I think, but my friend Phill who attended the first sitting had this as his favourite, and cited the subtle flavours as a big part of why.
5th, was L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, serving their famous margherita – tomato, double mozzarella, Pecorino Romano & basil. Initially, there was a very upsetting moment, when they dropped God’s own food on the Borough Market concrete. A terrible waste, and so we had to wait the very short time it takes them to knock up a new pizza in their ferociously hot ovens.
This, I felt, was slightly better than the already excellent margherita I had sampled when they first opened in Stoke Newington. On a day where all the pizzas had outstanding dough, this one was exceptional, and the tomato very good indeed. I am still left with my non-purist view though – at the end of the day it’s “just” a margherita. An outstandingly good margherita, but I like the variety of flavours and textures that experimentation brings.
The final contender was Radio Alice. By this point we were flagging badly – 6 quarter pizzas each is a substantial amount of food, even for a pair of pigs like us (we demolished 2 x 18″ pizzas on a Yard Sale review trip I’ll be publishing soon). This was by far the most attractive pizza slice on show – a work of art. Naturally I didn’t get a good picture of it. Well done brain. But it was gorgeous to look at.
Topping this pizza was Yorkshire fennel & pork sausage, tomato, lemon thyme & parmigiano reggiano, which I’d tried in my review a few months back. Again, this seemed better than the one I’d had in the restaurant – the fennel and lemon thyme both seemed more prominent, which added a lot, and I’d forgotten just how good their tomato sauce is, definitely the outstanding effort of the day for me in that department, they use Pelati peeled tomatoes, and I will be hunting those down for my pizza parties!
The sourdough base on this one was very different to the others, much crispier on the bottom, and a wonderfully airy, springy crust, presumably partially a result of using quite a different oven to their competitors.
So, at the end we sat, barely able to move, let alone think. But think we did, we talked through our preferences, and ultimately both ended up lending our vote to Sud Italia’s bonkers-but-brilliant effort. A close 2nd for the pair of us was Addommé, with Radio Alice tucked in a close 3rd for me.
But I have to say, the standard of pizzas was impressively high. All of them were done to perfection, the bread was at worst tasty, at best delicious, something that I feel is underrated in its importance by some pizza restaurants.
The 6 contestants provided a really broad spectrum of what the modern London pizza scene has to offer, and when you consider the amount of big hitters that were absent, you have to say that for lovers of this magnificent dish this is a great time to be in London. I did see some people complaining about the cost of the tickets, and honestly I can only assume they hadn’t thought their complaint through – where else could you sample 6 outstanding pizzas in one setting for that sort of price? And the mark-up vs what it would cost to buy one and half pizzas and a beer in a restaurant (with service added of course) is negligible really.
As a side note, I loved the all-vinyl selection of funk & soul classics the DJs treated us to!
However, our choices didn’t quite chime with the rest of the attendees – above isn’t the final tally, but gives you and idea. Addommé and Made Of Dough were clearly the crowd favourites. In the final count, Addommé emerged as the 2017 champions, and despite my affection for the Sud Italia entry, I certainly have no problem is proclaiming them worthy victors, and I hope to visit their restaurant soon for my 2nd go on their brilliant pizza!
As a post-script, I’m publishing this the day after Borough Market re-opened following the awful events of the evening of June 3rd. I have lived in London for 6 years, and Borough Market is absolutely one of my favourite places to go, or to take visitors. This pizza festival took place less than a week before the attacks, and I was there just a couple of days before. It’s a wonderful place that fully celebrates one of life’s great joys, food.
I really can’t recommend enough that you sample it if you’ve never been before, if you are visiting London try and take the time to check it out (although expect it to be very busy if that’s a Saturday!), if you’re a Londoner and live or work nearby, pop down for lunch one day and show your support for the oldest market in an even older city.
One thing I know – when the arseholes who committed this attack are completely forgotten, barely even a footnote in history, Borough Market and London will be getting on with what they do so well – being awesome.
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.
Today’s review will be relatively short and sweet, as I did a full review last year, which you can find here. This is more of a quick recap, with a couple of relevant observations based on some trips since that review.
Last night I headed down with my old buddy ThePetebox to stuff my face with half of one of Homeslice’s 20″ wonders. Before I tackle this trip though, a quick mention of a meal I had in the week between Christmas and New Year.
I went with a vegetarian friend, which was no biggie as I actually am pretty much vegetarian in my diet at home, but in a restaurant obviously restricts our selections considerably. We went half & half – mushroom, ricotta, pumpkin seeds & chilli flakes on one side, and butternut pumpkin, broccoli, pecorino & crispy onions the other. The former did look spectacular when I’d seen others ordering on previous visits, and my dining companion enjoyed it, but I found it below average, with a strangely pungent scent. The latter combination I really didn’t like at all. And the pizza was, to my mind, underdone – Homeslice do tend to have their pizzas right on the line between flopping around and crispy, so a few times they’ve come out slightly underdone compared to how I like them, and when you are dealing with slice from a 20″ pizza, and no knives and forks, that can be a pain in the neck to handle.
That was the first time I’ve ever been disappointed by a trip to a Homeslice, and it shook me somewhat. But this was mitigated by the knowledge that I’d have happily chosen basically any of the topping combinations with meat over these two, so I am not going to condemn them too harshly for one bad experience.
With that out of the way, let’s rattle through this one. I met Pete, we asked for a table and were seated immediately. The servers were friendly and helpful. We went for a classic (salami, parmesan & rocket with tomato sauce) and then a new one I’ve not seen before, XO pig cheek, collard greens & crackling furikake with tomato sauce. A few minutes later it arrived at the table on their signature wooden board with pizza slicer, and we got to business.
I’m a big fan of the salami pizza they do, this was maybe the 4th time I’ve had it, and it was as good as ever. Pete reckoned that the parmesan was overpowering the other flavours, and I can see where he was coming from there, but I don’t care, I like it the way it is, therefore he must be wrong. Worth noting that the salami is great stuff, and cooked to perfection – not too crispy, but just enough crunch around the edges of each slice to add a little something.
However, the pig cheek pizza – wow. This was absolutely delicious – big, juicy blobs of what seemed to be a thick, rich, slow cooked pig cheek stew, which interacted with the tomato sauce in a delightful way. The little crunchy bits of crackling added a fantastic textural aspect to the slices, the cheese melted into the mix almost imperceptibly, and the collard greens added a touch of freshness and lightness. Really, really very good indeed. Maybe even my favourite toppings combination at Homeslice yet, which is saying something. My mouth absolutely luxuriated in the flavours on offer with this one, it knocked the salami into a cocked hat, which is saying something.
The base was done pretty much to perfection, right in my sweet spot between super floppy neapolitan style and mega crispy NY style slices. However, during the meal I kept thinking “something is different, something is missing”, but just couldn’t place what. When we retired to a nearby pub after the meal, I was midway through my pint when I suddenly exclaimed “SALT!” to a bemused Pete. It was his first visit to Homeslice, so he had no way of knowing, but they have this neat trick where I think they sprinkle sea salt flakes on the wooden serving board before the pizza goes on there, which means the base ends up lightly encrusted with little flavour bombs that explode periodically in your mouth. It wasn’t a deal-breaker, but that would have elevated this pizza even higher, and I’m curious to know if they just forgot or it was a deliberate choice for these toppings to exclude this, or what.
In conclusion, a triumphant return to form for my favourite pizza place after the Christmas aberration. I can’t recommend them highly enough, they do some amazing and unexpected toppings, including some really leftfield sauce bases (creamed corn, blitzed cauliflower cheese and so on), so you can go quite far off piste. This, as I found, carries some risk, but the rewards are so great when they get it right that I’ll happily forgive them. The total bill for the 20″ pizza, a pint of Camden Hells lager and a fruit juice was £30 including service, which is quite a bargain in London.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.