Friday, 12 June 2015

Express Yourself

I have news.  Big news.
L has set her wedding date.
Pizza Express now have fresh buffalo mozzarella.
Well, it would be rude not to give it a go.  Especially when my sister is in town and we have vouchers...
Being awkward buggers, we both placed our orders but requested numerous alterations, making my La Reine and Jo's La Regina similar in more than name, with ham, artichokes, fresh buffalo mozzarella and Romana bases the order of the day.  And, you know what?

They weren't half bad.  Okay, so not on a par with Fratelli La Buffala or Santores, but pretty good.  For a chain restaurant in Kings Cross, anyway.  In fact, guys, tweak your base and you're on to a winner.
6.5 out of 10.  Or maybe even 7...

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

East is West

"Shelly.  There's something I need to tell you."
I knew from the way her tone changed that what L had to say was of great importance.  I glanced around.
"We're having to push our date back.  There's just no venues available this year."
I felt myself relax.  The mission was still on - but I had another year to make a success of it.
"Oh, okay.  Well, I'll keep looking."
"Good."  She replied.  And looked me in the eye.  "It gives you more time to find what we need."
I swallowed.  I knew what she was saying.  The goalposts for Operation:Pizza had moved, and the pressure had, if anything, increased.  Yes, I had more time... but that meant that anything less than perfection was just not an option.

Three weeks later I found myself at Pizza East in West London.  It was so far up the Portobello Road I thought I must have walked past it, but then spotted its sign at the end of a red-walled housing estate.  The welcome was warm, and the interior cosy - perfect for a winter's night out.  My friend and I sat down and scoured the menu.  We were both ravenous, so quickly ordered some croquettes, almonds and olives to nibble on as we got down to the serious business of choosing our pizza.  Recommendations were made, but I settled on the spicy sausage and broccoli combo - with, of course, a request for fresh buffalo mozzarella.

The starters certainly didn't disappoint, and the alcohol-free (alas, it was still Dry January) elderflower, cucumber and soda drink I ordered quenched my thirst very pleasantly.  But how would the main attraction hold up?

I didn't have to wait long to find out.  The spicy sausage was the star.  "Spicy" struck me as a very lazy way of describing the delicately-flavoured pork, but it was certainly very tasty.  In fact, it out-shone the rest of the pizza, making the other flavours, if anything, a bit bland.  And the cheese?  I'm not convinced it was the real deal.

But, you know what?  Pizza East was certainly a great venue, and the retro pop kept me and my chum very happy.  So happy we decided to stay for ice cream.  Chocolate ice cream, in a sugar cone.  And let me tell you, if this was Operation:Ice, this place would have been a main contender.

But this isn't Operation:Ice.  It's Operation:Pizza.  And the pizza didn't quite cut the mustard.  Or, rather, the mozzarella. 

7.5 out of ten.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Simply the best?

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself stood on Tottenham Court Road, my hands wrapped around of cup of tea as a fine drizzle slowly soaked me to my core.  In front of me, a queue of tourists and Londoners alike shivered along with me.  Behind, more and more people joined our plight.  What was I doing? you may ask?  Waiting for the bus?  Marching for some worthy cause?  Queuing to grab a bargain at some hip store's sale?  Oh no.  I was waiting for pizza.  At Franco Manca.

Laura no likey...

It probably took us the best part of 45 minutes to get our foot in the door and our bums at a table.  But we got there and, after a brief deliberation over the minimal menu, ordered our pizzas.  I'd perused the list of extra toppings and was disappointed to see fresh buffalo mozzarella was absent, but decided to go with an artichoke and ham combo.  It arrived.  I inhaled and, without further ado, tucked in...

Franco Manca, with its USP of sourdough bases, is considered by many to be the best of the best.  My verdict?  It isn't.  The base was a bit tough and the toppings left it a bit dry - which is more than I can say for my fine self after standing in that queue for so long.  Don't get me wrong, it was okay... but I've had better.  A lot better.  And, what was even more annoying was, as we waited for the bill, I heard someone order that elusive fresh buffalo mozzarella.  And get it.  A school girl error, I know, which means only one thing... I have to go back.
6.5 out of 10

Friday, 23 January 2015

Express Delivery

I'm excited.  Very excited.  Tomorrow I am going to what many consider the Holy Grail of Pizzerias - Franco Mancha.  Friends rave about the sourdough bases and fresh toppings, and I've been trying to get there for months.  I am licking my lips in anticipation.

Whilst many Londoners rave about FM, one out of towner's suggestion for this blog was Pizza Express.  I suspect that L will choke on her Sauvignon Blanc as she reads this, but all's fair in love and pizza.  Besides, like Strada, they offered me a free bottle of bubbly for my birthday...

I went to the original Soho branch to carry out my assessment, figuring that if any were going to have fresh buffalo mozzarella, it would be the flagship.  The waitress seemed surprised when I asked.

"Of course!"  she enthused before sashaying off to fetch our Prosecco.  Sadly, when my Giardiniera arrived, it became clear that she was mistaken.  And whilst the combination of artichokes, mushrooms, peppers, santos tomatoes, leeks, olives and garlic was okay, the base was, well, basic.

Oh well.  At least we got free booze...

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Word on the strada

I remember the first time I went to Strada - and it was with L.  We were both new to London and happened across the Camden branch.  Back then the garlic and rosemary bread was complimentary and the food was - well, we were rather impressed.
Since then I have eaten at various Stradas many times - and, sadly, I have to say, it never lived up to that first impression.  The pizza base lost it's crispiness, the restaurants stopped looking so new and the bread - well, they started charging for it.  But, I'm a fair person, and when I recently ate there with my parents, I decided I should do so with a critical eye.

I was pleased to see that the Holborn branch had reintroduced it's old menu, getting rid of the apparently Italian burgers (yes, really!) and bringing back my personal favourite, the Rustica pizza, with Italian sausage, artichokes, capers, caramelised onions and sun-dried tomatoes.  What pleased me even more was the confirmation their pizza oven was wood fired, and, upon my request, the provision of fresh buffalo mozzarella.  But the icing on the cake?  A free bottle of Prosecco.  You see, Strada also send me lots of special offers, including a bottle of bubbly on my birthday.  Sweeet....
Anyway, enough about such cheap ploys - what I was interested in was the pizza.
You know what?  It was pretty damn good.  In fact, it rivalled those I'd eaten at Fratelli la Bufala and Papagones - perhaps even Santore.  Then there's the central location, the reasonable price and the free booze.  Interesting.  Very interesting...
But was it a fluke?  Well, it has to be said that it was the best pizza I'd had at the chain for quite a while, so it could well be.  Or maybe Strada have upped their game?  To be honest, I don't know.  But I know how I can find out.  Now where did I put those vouchers...
I'm feeling generous.  8 out of ten.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Italy's Got Talent...

L was in London with her betrothed, S.  Pizza was on the cards.
"I have  a few places to show you."  I intimated as we discussed our plans on the phone.  "I think Fratelli la Bufala might be a winner."
"No."  Her response took me back.  Had she changed her mind?  Was my mission off?  I swallowed awkwardly.  "We're going to go to where S's friend works."
It turns out that the said Italian works at Santore in Exmouth Market.  It was on my list but, to be honest, I didn't have high expectations.  Until I saw videos of the very same Italian performing what I can only describe as pizza-base throwing acrobatics back in 2008 on You Tube - then heard that he had got through the first round of auditions for Britain's Got Talent.  It was then that I realised I had competition.
The restaurant was at the end of the market, the outside seating enclosed under a British-weather-proof marquee with outdoor heaters.  We were seated between two, and, after what felt like a session under a sun bed, I had to move.  But, once settled and with a glass of Prosecco in hand, I turned to the menu.  I was assured that the oven was wood fired (tick) and, as we were friends of the chef, we were able to secure fresh buffalo mozzarella on our pizzas too (double tick).  I decided to go with the Quattro Stagioni (that's mushroom, artichoke, ham and pepperoni if you were wondering).  L, of course, went for a Margherita, and caused a bit of confusion when she insisted that she wanted the cheese melting rather than adding raw once the pizza was cooked.  But, after a lot of gesturing and animated chatter in Italian, her request was agreed.

I admit, the pizza was pretty good - the cheese was delicious and the base was pretty much spot on.  I was mildly disappointed not to be offered sprinkles, but then I'm not sure the food needed the extra flavour. L was also impressed - the melted cheese had made her base a bit soggy, but apparently, in her eyes, this is a good thing.  This information may well push up the ratings of a lot of the other pizzas I have tried but, after a couple of Stregas (yet another tick!) L and I argued over Santore's score.  I suggested an 8 - L thought it was worthy of a 9.5.  I agreed to compromise with an 8 and a half out of ten, which does put it in the lead, and, when we returned the following night (I told you she was impressed), it managed to reach the same standard.  That, along with the friendly connection, might just make it a winner.
But, like I have said before, I am taking this mission very seriously.  Operation:Pizza has yet to be aborted...

Monday, 17 November 2014

(Michael) George and the Dragon

It had been a long yet productive day.  After two days of decorating, my dad (the aforementioned Michael George - see what I did there?) and I were ready for a treat.  Having been so impressed by the nearby Walthamstow Village last time he visited, I suggested we go again, and listed the various culinary options.  He fancied Italian - which was what I was secretly hoping.
You see, Operation:Pizza has yet to be concluded.
I was a bit nervous about returning to Nuovo Mondragone - last time I visited, they got my mate's order wrong, and left him waiting 20 minutes for a replacement.  Of course, by the time his meal came, I had finished mine, and I had to prompt them to offer some kind of compensation when the bill came.
But I like to think I am fair when it comes to pizza and war.
We were seated quite quickly.  The atmosphere was relaxed and family friendly - in fact the children at the table opposite were a constant source of entertainment.  We scanned our menus and decided to share some bread and olives before our main.  Dad, not being a pizza person, went for lasagne, and I decided to give Al Dragone a try - the combination of pepperoni, asparagus, dried chilli, aubergine and fresh tomato tickled my taste-buds' fancy.  Our minds made up, we waited to place our order.
And waited.
Eventually our waiter showed up and asked what we would like to drink.  Our alcoholic order given,we quickly slipped in our food before he could disappear again.

"Is the mozzarella fresh buffalo mozzarella?"  I enquired.  Sheepishly the waiter shook his head before skulking back to the kitchen.
After a slightly shorter wait, our drinks arrived, followed by our starter.  Dad really enjoyed the bread, but I was disappointed.  Yes, it was okay, but the garlic bread you get in Pizza Hut is no worse.  However, it filled a hole quite pleasantly.  Which turned out to be a good thing.
When our main finally arrived, my glass of wine was nearly empty and my napkin had begun to look rather appetizing.  My dad was offered parmesan, which he accepted.  I was not, which was all the more disappointing as the cheese was not only the cheap grated variety they use in the aforementioned chain, but rather scarce.
The pizza was okay, but, paired with the wait, failed to fill me with enthusiasm.  My easy-to-please father described his dish as "okay", which was not a great sign.  As our plates were cleared, we were offered dessert.  We declined, and asked for the bill.
15 minutes later, I asked for the bill again.
I left it another 10 before frantically waving over someone else.  Five minutes passed before it finally arrived.  My dad insisted on paying, but said I could leave a tip.  I didn't bother.
Needless to say, Nuovo Mondragone has been crossed off the list.