Norwich: Pizza Express

Stacia BriggsIt was a birthday treat that ended up limper than a discarded party balloon. STACIA BRIGGS took her family to Pizza Express and was less than impressed with what was served up.Stacia Briggs

It was a birthday treat that ended up limper than a discarded party balloon. STACIA BRIGGS took her family to Pizza Express and was less than impressed with what was served up.

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It was my daughter Ruby's birthday, so she got to call the shots when it came to choosing the restaurant to celebrate reaching the grand old age of 12.

Breaking with family tradition (we always end up at one of the three Zaks restaurants), she chose Pizza Express, having recently enjoyed a meal under the shadow of the Liverpool Wheel at Albert Dock in one of the chain's North West branches.

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She chose the St Benedict's branch - despite her brother's constant and bizarre assertion that St Benedict's is 'the kind of street that looks as if it's sad' - and we duly booked a table for 6.30pm on what would turn out to be a gloriously sunny, hot day.

I mention this because it had an impact on the number of diners at the restaurant: most were answering the smoke signals being sent across the city by a multitude of barbecues and Pizza Express on St Benedict's was particularly quiet.

We were shown to our table, joyfully next to a large open window where a cool breeze blew in and a bird serenaded us with song (I'm not sure if this is an act laid on by Pizza Express - if it is, I like it).

I must point out, straight away, that what I am about to write actually pains me. I really like Pizza Express, and I'll say from the outset that the staff were incredibly considerate and obliging. Top rate. Shame I can't say the same about the pizzas.

After starters of garlic dough balls and garlic bread (the former were great, the latter weren't as garlicky as they could or should have been) and a round of drinks, we ordered our pizzas.

Both my children are on the picky side of annoying, and prefer to have very little pizza sauce on their Margherita pizzas, �6.25 each.

I explained this, apologised for their fussiness and then ordered a Quattro Formaggi pizza (price not on the menu and I'm not sure how much it cost, for reasons which will become apparent) for me and a La Reine, �8.15, with prosciutto cotto ham, olives and mushrooms for their father.

The pizzas arrived after around 15 minutes and it instantly became clear that these were the Bobby Charltons of the pizza world - extremely thin on top.

My daughter's pizza had an embarrassingly little amount of cheese on it, her father's had hardly any ham or cheese, my son's was just about acceptable and if there were four cheeses on my pizza, I would have required a microscope to locate them.

In fact, there was barely any cheese on any of our four pizzas: it was as if a sudden state of cheese rationing had befallen Pizza Express forcing the chef to eke out one pizza's worth to cover four.

I sent my daughter' pizza back - it was the child's birthday, after all - and asked for more cheese. Meanwhile, we started eating our own food, not wishing to cause a fuss on Ruby's birthday and also being absolutely starving after a day on the beach with a very meagre lunch.

I'll say one thing: what my pizza lacked in cheese, it made up for in charcoal, a thin layer of which graced the bottom and edges of my pizza where it had been, frankly, burnt.

At this point, my daughter's pizza returned, dotted with barely-lukewarm splodges of pallid mozzerella to cover the previously cheese-free areas. Having already sent it back once, I didn't feel I could send it back again (I should have. She hardly touched it).

Cole managed two-thirds of his pizza, I chipped off the black bits from mine and ate the rest, his father ate the middle of his pizza where there were actually a few pieces of ham.

Then I sent them out of the restaurant to get an ice-cream from the newsagents down the road: my family are proper Brits, hating any form of complaining and did not want to witness me in action. I, however, am made from sterner stuff.

When the waiter (very pleasant) came over to give me the bill (�51), I relayed the above story to him and he immediately apologised and said he'd talk to his manager. Said manager then came over, apologised again and said I wouldn't be charged for the pizzas.

I have no issue whatsoever with the service or the reaction to my complaint - in fact I felt sorry for the staff, particularly when I discovered that the customer before me had just revealed himself to be a mystery shopper. And they say lightning never strikes twice.

I'm not sure what went wrong: it was a fairly quiet night, we didn't order anything untoward, Pizza Express is normally reliably consistent when it comes to quality, but it was a real let-down, especially when it was supposed to be a birthday treat.

The final bill was �28.40, including a tip. Yes, I tipped - although I sincerely hope none of it went to the chef.

t Pizza Express, St Benedict's Street, Norwich, 01603 622157,

t Open: Mon-Sun, 11.30am-11pm.

t Wheelchair access: Yes

t Vegetarian options: Plenty.


Food: **

Atmosphere: ***

Service: ****

Family: ***