May 22 2013 Latest news:
Friday, March 22, 2013
You’re certainly not spoilt for choice when it comes to pizza. But does Pizza Express, which pioneered posh pizza, still justify earning its crust? SIMON PARKIN found out.
If the family friendly cheeriness of Pizza Hut is earning a crust from one side of the pizza business, Pizza Express is fighting with Zizzi and Ask for a slice at the other end.
They’re all national chains though — and how different can pizza be? Pizza Express clearly feel very different.
You get the impression they see themselves as the sophisticated but egalitarian option — upmarket pizza for the people. Not as snooty as Zizzi, more family friendly than Ask, and certainly a world away from the multi-coloured jolliness of the Hut.
They can, probably rightly, claim to be the pioneers of popularising pizza that at least bares some relation to its Italian origins on the high street — and the others to a certain extent live in their shadow, even if many people prefer their rivals.
Founded in 1965 by Peter Boizot, Pizza Express’ first restaurant opened its doors on Wardour Street in London’s Soho. Inspired by a trip to Italy, Boizot had brought back a pizza oven from Naples and a chef from Sicily determined to recreate the Italian original.
Back then it was seen as a slightly bohemian dining option, a vibe added to when regular jazz performances began at its nearby second Dean Street restaurant.
Nowadays of course, the chain is far from bohemian. They’ve too many branches to name, right across the country, and it has become the easy option for many people looking for a meal that’s not too fancy, but is reliably, perhaps predictably,
Here in Norwich we have two branches. We popped into the St Benedict’s Street branch (the other is at the Forum) for weekend lunch. I’ve always preferred this branch; it’s got a friendly, simple, warmer vibe about it than the harsh light and echoing bustle of the Forum.
The menu changes slightly with the seasons and there have been a few additions including dishes with northern Italian influences and the Leggera Pizza — the pizza with a hole, comprising a ring of our thin, crispy dough with the middle filled with salad. At less than 500 calories, it’s the dieter’s choice over the more traditional Classic Pizza and Romana-style pizzas.
They also always have a pizza created by an award winning guest chef. Currently it is the Calabrese, the chain’s hottest creation, topped with spicy Calabrese sausage, finely chopped red chillies, roquito peppers, peppers and rocket, that’s the brainchild of Francesco Mazzei.
Of course there are the more usual combinations like margherita, and ham and mushroom — which at Pizza Express is called La Reine because, according to the menu, it was reputed to be beloved of an Italian queen.
The pizzas start fro £7.20 and the prices seemingly increase depending on how carnivorous you’re feeling.
Beyond that they also do a limited half dozen pasta dish choices — Polpette Piccante, meatballs with a gruyère and parmesan sauce is a new addition — plus main course salads (mainly priced at £9.95), and their recently updated and improved selection of calzone.
The kid’s —sorry, Piccolo — menu is excellent incidentally. A good choice that avoids junk and is enough like the adult dishes for young ones not to feel left out.
For some reason I’ve never been particularly impressed by the limited, and in my experience fairly meagre starter selection however — except when my niece is in tow and insists on garlic dough balls. So we preferred to stick to sides of pitted olives and roasted peppers (which came to £4.60).
I opted for an old favourite the Sloppy Giueseppe, comprised of hot spiced beef, red onions and green peppers. You may think you’ve had this from the chain’s supermarket range, but for whatever reason made to order it’s even better and on this occasion was hotter than usual. I was thankful for the bottle of Peroni.
My dining companion snubbed pizza in favourite of the Calzone Prosciutto Pesto, which was stuffed with ham hock, roasted mushroom and red onion, baby spinach, mozzarella and grana padano in a creamy gruyère, parmesan and pesto sauce. At £12.50 it was both an expensive and filly lunchtime choice, but she raved about it so much, it’ll be my choice next time.
It did however mean that neither of us had room for dessert. However from pervious visits I’d recommend the Chocolate Glory.
This chain is so familiar that its easy to take them for granted. However overall I’d say they’re just about still winning the pizza wars.
St Benedict’s Street
Open: Daily 11.30am-11pm
Prices: Starters from £2.95, pizza from £7.20, other mains from £8.75, desserts from £4.25
Vegetarian options: Lots
Wheelchair access: Yes