After years of domination byt the casual-dining chains, the UK pizza scene is undergoing a transformation, with tradition Neapolitan values and a new waive of entrepreneur helping to shake it up. Tom Vaughan finds out who's leading the way and how it's possible to make some real dough
Some dishes are born great, others achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them. For pizza, it's probably all three: a 16th century street food born in Naples that has lasted the ages, defined a country in culinary terms and gone on to conquer the world. Set foot in pretty much any town anywhere in the developed world and you can hunt down a pizza in minutes.
In the UK, the first pizza restaurant opened in 1965. Pizza's popularity has grown exponentially ever since, with the first Pizza Hut opening in 1973 and a raft of offerings following suit over the years, with PizzaExpress, Strada, Ask Italian and Zizzi among today's most popular chains.
THE PILGRIM BROTHERS
For James and Thom Elliot, who founded street food stall Pizza Pilgrims in March 2012, the motivation to jump aboard the pizza bandwagon was simple. "We both hated our jobs and wanted to go into food but didn't have any capital," explains Thom. "The street food scene was starting out, so we did our research and saw that, at the time, no one was doing pizza." After a trip to Italy to buy a Piaggio Ape van with a gas-powered pizza oven in the back, the pair swiftly built up a following at Berwick Street market in London - despite never having cooked a pizza before their venture. In July this year, the pair opened their first restaurant in London's Soho.
Such stories are commonplace. Now-established restaurants such as London's Franco Manca and Homeslice, and PizzaLuxe (in London and Leeds), all started life as market traders. The reasons are simple: minimum set-up costs and the safety net of a high margin. Thom Elliot estimates that the start-up cost of Pizza Pilgrims was £10,000 while Charlie Nelson, who set up pizza street food stall Fundi last year with his brother Rory, did it on a budget of £3,000. "The clay oven cost us about £500 to build and it all swiftly paid for itself," explains Charlie, who says he makes around 50% profit on a small selection of pizzas that cost between£5 and £6.
Yet in a saturated market - pretty much every high street in Britain has a pizza restaurant of some description - what is driving this new demand? Dominic Brown, marketing manager of burgeoning international pizza chain Rossopomodoro, says it's simple: "Switch on the TV these days and all you see is food - chefs cooking with amazing extra virgin olive oils. Thirty years ago, olive oil was sold only in chemists in the UK. We understand more and more the importance of where food comes from and its story."
Boasting 120 global restaurants, including 85 branches in Italy (which doesn't usually do pizza chains, says Brown) and seven in London, the group's strength, as with many new upstart pizzerias, lies in its dedication to authentic Neapolitan pizzas, flying in the flour, tomato and cheese from Italy and trusting only Naples-trained chefs.
The low cost and attractive mark-ups mean authenticity can be achieved on a modest budget. Thom Elliot admits he didn't initially realise what a great mark-up pizza had, but now loves the affordability for both him and his customers. "I love the fact that we can go out of our way and get the very best pizza ingredients money can buy and still sell our product at a great price point."
FROM DEVOURING TO TASTING
For Giuseppe Mascoli, owner of five-strong group Franco Manca - which also adheres closely to the Neapolitan tradition - the public's growing taste for authentic flavours is a backlash against the UK's corporatised Italian casual dining market. "We wanted to snatch pizza from the jaws of globalisation and restore its reputation," he says. "More and more people do not like to see themselves as the consumer bit of an assembly line. They have also started tasting food rather than devouring it."
While the likes of Rossopomodoro, Pizza Pilgrims, PizzaFace in Brighton and La Favorita in Edinburgh all have a backbone of authenticity - with chewy crusts and flavours in line with Neapolitan values - other newcomers has gone down a different route, aiming to win over punters with a creativity not seen in normal high-street pizzerias.
One such restaurant is PizzaLuxe, a two-strong group founded by Laura Pabon and Paul Goodale, which also started life as a market stall, on London's Brick Lane, before opening sites in London's Westfield Stratford and Leeds' Trinity Kitchen (turn to page 34 for our Breakthrough Business feature on PizzaLuxe). Offering imaginative pizza toppings such as lamb carpaccio with feta, pomegranate and mint, it aims to differentiate itself with a mix of creativity, care and attention. "The pizzas are Laura's creations - she wanted a lighter, more female-oriented pizza," says Goodale. "But a huge amount of TLC goes into every one. Everything is made by hand, from the tomato sauce cooked in small batches to the dough fermented like sourdough."
From Homeslice's oxtail and bone marrow pizzas to London-based Pizza East's veal meatballs and cream, so long as that all-important TLC has gone in, Brits are nowhere near as militant about the simplicity of Neapolitan pizza as their Italian counterparts.
With Mascoli firmly believing that British diners are turning away from chain pizzerias towards more artisan offerings, it will be interesting to see how the high street reacts. Rossopomodoro and PizzaLuxe both have designs on sites outside London in the near future, and it is surely little coincidence that Pizza Hut has recently announced a £60m refurbishment programme to try and bring its sites more in line with other highstreet chains, including installing open-plan kitchens so customers can see the pizzas being made.
But even if the likes of PizzaExpress and Strada wanted to change their offering to reflect the rising popularity of Neapolitan â¨pizzas, they would struggle, says Brown. "Do I see PizzaExpress putting Neapolitan-style pizzas on their menu? Yes. Do I see them installing wood-fired stone ovens? No. You can source all the ingredients from Naples but without that oven it's not Neapolitan."
While it's unlikely that the hugely popular casual-dining chains such as PizzaExpress, Zizzi, Strada and Ask will ever need to make wholesale changes to their offering, they will doubtless be looking over their shoulders. Meanwhile, the growing appreciation for artisan pizzas - along with the wealth of books and education now available on the subject - creates the perfect opportunity for independent restaurateurs to make the casual-dining chains do just that.
What counts as an authentic Neapolitan pizza? According to the rules proposed by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (AVPN), a non-profit organisation founded in Naples in 1984, genuine Neapolitan pizza dough consists of type 0 or 00 wheat flour, natural Neapolitan yeast or brewer's yeast, sea salt and water.
The dough must be kneaded by hand or with a low-speed mixer. After it has risen, the dough must be formed by hand without the help of a rolling pin or a machine and be no more than 3mm thick. The pizza must then be baked for 60-90 seconds in a 485Â°C stone oven with an oak-wood fire.
There are three official variants: pizza marinara, made with tomato, garlic, oregano and extra virgin olive oil; pizza Margherita, made with tomato, sliced mozzarella, basil and extra virgin olive oil; and pizza Margherita extra, made with tomato, mozzarella from Campania, basil and extra virgin olive oil.
Pizza Napoletana is a traditional speciality guaranteed product. Only AVPN can accept variations and recognise their authenticity.
THE FRANCO MANCA TRAY WAY
The best tray pizzas are made with a very wet and elastic dough, based on a method using 'poolish' (an equal mix of flour and water with added yeast). This is made about 16 hours in advance of the dough. The total dough recipe given here makes enough for one pizza (1kg) and is enough to feed four people.
The best way to mix this dough is to use an electric blender with a dough hook. If working without, be prepared to apply elbow grease.
For the poolish
400ml lukewarm (22ËC) water
6g dry yeast
For the dough
2tbs olive oil
Make the poolish the day before you make the pizza by combining all the ingredients in a bowl. Cover and set aside in the fridge for at least 16 hours and no longer than 48 hours.
On the day itself, in a large bowl, mix the flour, yeast and sugar into the poolish and combine. As it comes together, use the strength of your arm and stiff fingers to beat it for about six minutes. You might have to rest every few minutes! With a mixer, it should take about four minutes.
You are aiming for a smooth, elastic dough that starts to shine. Add the salt and oil and mix again until these ingredients are absorbed into the dough, then turn the mixture out into a lightly oiled bowl and rest for 20 minutes.
Transfer the dough onto an oiled tray and fold into shape, following the dimensions of the tray you are using. Then turn it over, so the 'good' side is up. Stretch the dough towards the edges of the tray in two stages, resting for 10 minutes between each stretch. When stretching the dough, try not to touch it on top; instead, use your fingertips from underneath the dough mass.
After the second stretch, add your toppings. If using tomato sauce, make sure it is spread right to the edges of the dough. If you are using olive oil, pour it into the palm of your hands and pat it lightly over the top of the dough, again making sure it touches the edges. If the dough is deep (or the tray small) you can dimple the dough with your fingertips, making a focaccia-style deep pizza and adding more sauce or oil. If you have stretched the dough very thin, simply add the rest of your ingredients and seasonings.
Recipe taken from Franco Manca: Artisan Pizza to Make Perfectly at Home. Due to be published later this month, it will be available from bookstores at £12.99.
While Neapolitans will accept only oak wood-fired stone ovens that reach 485Â°C, of the 350-brick sort that Rossopomodoro imports, shipping in such a behemoth is very expensive. The Stone Bake Oven Company sells commercial stone ovens starting at £4,500. For those willing to eschew the traditional wood and go with gas, as the team at Pizza Pilgrims does, CaterKwik sells various sizes, with prices starting at £4,750.
If it all seems too expensive, single-deck table-top electric pizza ovens are available from as little as £150. But if you are desperate for that stone-baked crust, you could always build your own oven.
Charlie Nelson, owner of street food stall Fundi, reckons it cost him little more than £500 to build his first clay pizza oven. He now operates with three - two of which he takes on the road and one which is in permanent residency at a pub in Oxford.