That London’s Foodism magazine has persuaded more than 400 restaurants to take part in its first National Pizza Day, is indicative of the rude health of this import. From national chains such as Prezzo to the hip London independent Voodoo Rays, venues across Britain will offer discounts and one-off specials today, feeding our hunger for what, in 2016, Aviva reported was the UK’s favourite takeaway meal.
After a wobble in the same year, mainstream pizza sales remained strong, too. PizzaExpress enjoyed a 1.3% like-for-like sales rise in the first half of 2017, while Domino’s sales were up 8.1% in Q3. Now operating around 1,000 sites, it aims to open 1,600, such is its faith in Britain’s love of pizza.
But, even so, could pizza be under exploited? Dedicated British indies are currently focused, almost exclusively, on perfecting and popularising Neapolitan-style pizza: soft, chewy pizzas made with long-fermenting doughs, simply topped with A1 ingredients, paper-thin in the middle with a puffy rim, usually wood-fired. From London’s Pizza Pilgrims to Glasgow’s Paesano, via Newcastle’s Cal’s Own or Leeds’ Pizza Fella, most UK cities now have a neo-Neapolitan joint, turning out what, to me, are impeccable pizzas.
Despite the militant carping from Santa Maria’s Neapolitan owners in November’s Restaurant magazine (they particularly dislike what they claim are inauthentic sourdough bases), such pioneers have radically improved British pizza. In fact, we are already making Naples’ favourite dish our own with outfits such as Manchester’s Honest Crust or Bristol’s Bertha’s cleverly using ingredients such as Brussels sprouts or butternut squash purée, which traditionalists would spurn.
That Neapolitan pizza has become the only game in town, however, is bizarre. US website Serious Eats once identified 30 US pizza styles, including the classic New York slice and Chicago deep-dish. In east Asia, there are multiple intriguing variations (eg, Indonesian rendang pizza). Back in Italy, numerous regional iterations exist such as focaccia-like Silician sfincione or Neapolitan deep-fried pizza fritta.
Experts often hail Rome as Italy’s true pizza capital because, beyond those regional styles, you can find at least three native Roman pizzas there: pizza bianca (sometimes split/stuffed), al taglio (rectangular, reheated slices), and stiff, thin-crust scrocchiarella. Many of these are ripe for UK reinterpretation and are, potentially, far easier to master than Neapolitan pizza.
All credit to those perfectionists nailing the Neapolitan, but as chef Ben Davy says – he’s the co-creator of Leeds’ Neapolitan Water Lane Boathouse pizzeria and the innovative, NY-inspired slice bar, Dough Boys – Neapolitan pizza (“It’s not superior, it’s just different.”) does present obstacles. The pressure to get every tiny detail right with the dough or toppings is immense. “It’s so stripped back there’s nothing to hide behind,” he says.
Huge, heavy imported clay pizza ovens (cost £5,000 to £20,000, expect a three-month lead time), can be unwieldy. Using a forklift truck to get Water Lane’s prized Stefano Ferrara oven onto its mezzanine was, says Davy: “The most harrowing eight hours of my life.”
In contrast, electric deck ovens for a slice or al taglio pizza bar start around £1,500. You can play with “way more flavours” and produce a great product from £2-a-slice. It is location dependent says Davy (Dough Boys sits within venue-bar Belgrave Music Hall; you need, “high-footfall, student areas or where people drink”) but, clearly, there is scope to do far more with such hit ’n’ run pizza styles across the UK.
National Pizza Day is upon us, but the industry has barely begun to explore its possibilities. This Neapolitan new wave could be but the start of a far wider pizza revolution.
This article that first appeared in the February issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK's restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the restaurant sector subscribe to Restaurant magazine here