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The State of British Pizza: 2010 | Sortachef

The State of British Pizza: 2010

Mauro with the woodfired oven at San Carlo on Granby Street in Leicester

 The following are notes from Sortachef’s recent trip to the UK. 

  

July 21st, Bloomsbury, Central London 

While walking to Covent Garden after depositing our bags at the hotel, I spy a well-dressed man at a sidewalk table eating what looks like a mighty fine pizza. Italian style. Topped with prosciutto and fresh mozzarella. This is certainly a revelation to someone who has long considered the phrase ‘good British pizza’ to be an oxymoron. 

Later, while the rest of the family sleeps off jet lag, I check out the restaurant – Strada by name – and find that right smack dab in the middle of London they’re turning out pizzas from a woodburning oven. The staff is international: a young Italian woman greets me, an overbearing Asian woman runs the dining room, and the cook who poses dubiously for my photo is Eastern European. Outside, a German who has some clout in the kitchen tells me between drags on his cigarette that Strada has 27 locations in the London area and that last year they hired an Italian chef to get the dough right. 

Woodfired Pizza at Strada on Great Queen Street near Covent Garden

We return at 8 for a very nice meal indeed. Two perfectly baked pizzas, rigatoni and – for my wife the Salad Queen – squid-ink pasta with sautéed fresh veggies. The pizza crust is light and airy with a delicate crispiness. The toppings are good quality: Italian prosciutto, buffalo mozzarella, sweet tomatoes; the whole is tinged lightly with smoky flavor. The pastas are tasty and cooked ‘al dente’. The only drawback at all is somewhat erratic service from the large waitstaff, which can be excused in light of very reasonable prices for a Central London location. 

I do worry about that squid ink, though. Is it vegetarian? 

  

July 23rd, Knightsbridge, Central London 

Out with the cousins at Harrods. As usual, everything here is over the top – a rocking horse for $8,000 and designer Halloween costumes for your pet at around $500 a pop (or is that a pup?). What I love best at Harrods are the food halls, which are the ultimate in foodie paradise and never fail to amaze me. Cheeses, vegetables, charcuterie, meats and seafood, along with sweets beyond your wildest imagination. 

And there’s a bar for pizza. Woodfired, of course. But Harrods doesn’t have just one oven; they have two! For the exorbitant price of a pizza, however, I can only ogle. Now, maybe if I could control just one little oil well….     

  

July 25th, Hampton Court, Surrey 

At Zizzi, a stone’s throw from the train station near Henry VIII’s impressive palace. Gordo, from Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, adjusts the window behind our table at the end of the large dining room to make Granny happy. The Thames River flows quietly beyond. 

Woodstone gas-fired pizza oven at Zizzi

This Zizzi, part of a chain of Italian restaurants that boasts 100 locations around England, is focused around an impressive gas-fired oven (note: the Woodstone oven in the photo is from a different location). The restaurant is half filled with families chortling over pizza. 

I sense very quickly that Zizzi is like a mediocre version of Strada. The risotto is certainly green, as advertised, but is watery and bland. The pizza crust is good at the edge but undercooked at the center (there’s a cold spot under the ‘ham’). The pizza toppings are decidedly downmarket: canned artichoke hearts and cheap cheese. At the center of the pizza is a large rectangle of what I’m pretty sure is called ‘ham loaf’ at the deli counter. The ultimate insult: this one costs more than the pizza I enjoyed at Strada the other night! 

I want to like Zizzi, so sleekly European in style, but it falls short on quality. With such a great oven, surely they can do better than this. 

  

July 27th, East Molesey, Surrey 

It’s the Bullhogs turn to feed the troops. My son and I go off to the local Tesco to see what’s on offer, and come back with an armload of pizzas from a popular new rack that sells ‘take and bake’ pizzas. In the great spirit of British supermarkets, they’re very reasonably priced. 

One of the cousins enjoying off-the-shelf Tesco pizza

We remove the plastic, set racks toward the center, and turn out 2 pizzas at a time in the English convection oven (yes, it’s one of those whose fan is always on). There’s nothing special about the bready crust, but the pizzas sport kid-friendly toppings just fine for a large group. Our hungry crowd is happily eating within a half hour. 

Even with two frozen cheesecakes and some red wine thrown in, the total bill to feed 14 people comes to under $40. Now how cool is that? 

  

July 31st, Leicester 

Mauro is grinning from ear to ear from behind the counter at the San Carlo restaurant on Granby Street when I walk in – this time with camera in hand. (I’d come across this restaurant the evening before while seeking Indian food, for which this city is well known.) It amazes me how a woodfired oven can bring people together. 

Although the jacketed host is unsure of my motives, I wangle my way past to watch Mauro and his crew in action. While he checks every dish that goes out – cold salmon, salads, and a beautifully arranged Coquille St. Jacques – Mauro talks easily. Very pleased he is with the pizzas, and shows them off with pride. 

Because of family commitments I don’t get a chance to try what looks like very tasty pizza. On leaving, Mauro shakes my hand and smiles warmly. 

  

Armchair conclusions from Seattle: 

I’m pleased to conclude that British pizza has come a long way since the 80’s, when every pizza I dined on had the consistency of cardboard. Not only can you now find some very nice pizza, but as in Italy and the U.S. the culture of pizza  has taken hold. I found the expectation for quality by young people to be particularly high.     

I intended to include Edinburgh in this, but by the time we got to our little apartment in Haymarket, we were all tired of eating out and wanted what my kids referred to as ‘real’ food. If you happen to be in Edinburgh, I understand that La Favorita restaurant and La Favorita’s mobile van do a pretty good woodfired pizza. 

While checking a few facts, I stumbled across a list of top 10 London pizzas on Young and Foodish. Harrods makes their list; Strada does not. Still, I would recommend Strada any day. (The Strada on Great Queen Street ½ block west of Holborn underground station is where we had our best pizza. Results at other restaurants may vary.) 

Also, in fairness to Zizzi, I’d be willing to give it another try as I based my opinion on only one visit and one pizza. The atmosphere was pleasant and the crust was fine. 

Meanwhile, if you’re ever in Leicester, check out San Carlo restaurant on Granby Street, where Mauro will be happy to see you. Be sure to tell him Sortachef sent you, and pass along this message: Flame on! 

The pizzaioli at Harrods

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At Woodfiredkitchen.com, Sortachef takes you on adventures in the kitchen and beyond, with tales to suit. Many of his offerings are woodfired - a flaming good recipe for pizza, bread, or something different. All recipes are original and tasty. Enjoy!
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