As if that pizza pun could not be topped… how cheesy. Ok, enough of that.
Everyone loves pizza. It’s hard not to. What once was a student staple – everyone’s late night best friend – has now become something of an artisanal craft. Forget the cheese-filled crusts of Dominos, the 2 4 1 deals at Pizza Express, and the sweetcorn of Pizza Hut, pizza is undergoing a revolution and it wants to be taken seriously.
From an outsider’s perspective pizza would appear to be a pretty simple fellow: a dough base covered in toppings (predominantly tomato and cheese) and then whacked in the oven. Sometimes, however, trying to overcomplicate the simple can ruin what was already perfect; yet, what is being achieved by these new pioneers of pizza is proving this theory drastically wrong.
Building on the concept that pizza and drinking go hand in hand (a slice in one and a pint in the other), Wandercrust Pizza was founded on the principles that co-owner Mike had always wanted to open a pizzeria – even studying the fine art in Naples – while his business partner Gav had wanted to breathe life back into the great British boozer. The idea was born when Gav jokingly sent Mike a pizza truck advert he had found while searching for a campervan one summer.
Starting as a pop-up in the garden of The Crown in Greenwich on quiet Monday nights, soon Mondays became one of the busiest school nights in the pub, leading to a permanent residency; “we wanted to create this thing where people would go for a good drink, but they could also enjoy fast casual dining at the same time. Having a kitchen and a chef in a pub is a huge overhead, so why not bring in a pop-up?”
From their wood-fired oven in their pizza van in the pub garden, a permanent oven was built within the pub in full view of patrons, every pizza being walked enticingly through the pub (although they still have their trusty van for events.) A traditional Neapolitan pizza – the granddaddy of all pizzas – their dough is slow-proofed for over 30 hours, leading to a thin and soft crust with traditional cornicione, the crispy-yet-delicious blackened bubbles caused by the firing process.
Although hugely flexible in terms of what can then be put on top (they’re currently working on a vegan pizza), both Gav and Mike decided to stick to a traditional baseline yet only use artisanal produce for a kick of freshness. This approach saw them invited to enter the London Pizza Festival 2018 by Young & Foodish, ultimately taking home the top prize – in only under one year of trading – against stiff competition from a mixture of well-founded restaurants and other vans; “we can technically say that we serve London’s best pizza!” Indeed, their ‘Speck e Rucola’ [tomato, mozzarella, speck ham, rocket, shaved parmesan, extra virgin olive oil] really adds fuel to this claim; from the stunning presentation to the fresh parmesan on top, every ingredient works in unison yet stands alone in terms of punchy flavour. And yes, the crust is wander-ful.
Yet although Neapolitan pizza seems to be the immediate go-to for pizzerias across London, newcomer Manifesto Pizza has taken a different approach. Wanting to stand out from the crowd owner Vittorio has created what he likes to think is a London pizza, “it’s time to change [the pizza scene] a little bit”.
His pizza uses an ancient bread technique of having a low percentage of yeast, a dough proofing of 48 hours, and a longer cooking time in an electric oven to keep the base and crust thin and crispy. This leads to a consistency in the base, which stays upright (no fear of droppings slipping off onto your lap mid bite!) When asked why he didn’t go down wood-fired route, “I can control the temperature better and maintain consistency. The base stays upright, a Neapolitan pizza would never do that. There’s also the decision of having to burn the crust (unhealthy) or having an uncooked middle when cooking in a clay oven. This is why you bloat afterwards, especially with beer on top!”
A former Head of Sales for Natura, Vittorio has always focussed on procuring the best ingredients, yet never supplied a pizza restaurant as “chefs didn’t want expensive and organic ingredients”. Now he is running his own pizzeria he makes sure that every ingredient is the best, sourcing suppliers directly from Italy (his tomatoes are the plum variety from Naples, his olives from Genova…)
“With food, everything has been invented. Everything has been tried. But what hasn’t developed is the technique.” Although having been only for only 6 months, techniques in the kitchen have already evolved as have the inventive offerings; ‘Sunny Bacon’, for example, has a bright yellow base from the tumeric and sarroack black pepper in the dough, topped with mozzarella, gorgonzola, and giovanna (pork belly from a small producer in the South of Lombardy, formed of two pork bellies rolled together, steamed and smoked.) This is haute-pizza.
Not all artisanal pizza requires a permanent roof over its head, however. Taking a rusty old horsebox and altering it beyond recognition into a pizza oven on wheels, Rolling Dough has transformed what it is to run a food truck, no longer reserved only for greasy cheeseburgers and kebabs. Childhood friends Jon and Glenn spent years working in hospitality and managing different restaurants and food businesses before deciding to take their love of pizza on the road, starting off in the country pub gardens around Windsor (the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry was only their second public outing, and to date still one of their busiest!)
Without the support of an onsite kitchen, it is the large wood-fired oven attached to the back of their horsebox in which the magic happens; burning up to 500C their pizza comes out smoking hot in under 90 seconds. Inspired also by the Neapolitan style of cooking (and importing their flour directly from Naples) they proof the dough for up to 3 days which leaves it full of air bubbles that puff and crisp during the cooking process, and is full of flavour.
With limited space, the menu has to remain short yet punchy, with a distinctive Anglo-Italian influence (‘Down to Earth’ is a mix of mozzarella, mushrooms, truffle, and black garlic.) Innovation has to remain creative in such a tight space – as does the acrobatic skills of Glenn making the pizza and Jon cooking it – but enjoying a pitch at Paddington Canal certainly adds to their appeal.
Whether it’s served by the slice or as a whole, Neapolitan or not, pizza is very much here to stay. With pizzerias across London competing for your attention this competition is breeding further innovation, and this innovation is breeding better pizza. Win win all round!