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!

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 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