Could the great lyricist Johnny Mercer have had pizza in mind when he matched these lines about love’s uncertainties to a Hoagy Carmichael melody? The fatalism in the song How Little We Know reflects my own doubts ever since I fell madly in love, almost nine hours ago, with the pizza at Pizza East, a two-day-old restaurant in the Tea Building (56 Shoreditch High Street, London – see map. Tel 020 7729 1888).
Lunching in a near empty venue where the staff outnumbered the customers by a ratio of perhaps 15-to-1, my Margherita pizza (£6) was the best I’ve ever had in London. It was more distinctive, stylistically, than the pizzas at all but one of London’s more accomplished pizzerias, Story Deli. Rather than merely emulate the Neapolitans, Australian chef Bernie Plaisted has looked to pizzerias in Sydney and Los Angeles for some crisp thinking. His pizza is crisp to the core, unlike its soft-centered counterparts in Naples, yet extremely light, airy and delicately chewy. Evidence suggests that the charred, blistered and bubbly cornicione (puffy outer rim) was inspired by the sourdough crust at Pizzeria Mozza in LA. It compresses exquisitely to the chew. The English difference entails dusting the dough with fine Maldon sea salt. It the pizza too salty? Maybe. Would I like them to use less salt? No. The Maldon almost becomes a flavour as much as a seasoning. I love it.
The mozzarella is Mozzarella di Bufala Campana DOP – the best that GBP can buy. Pizza East drains the cheese, as it must, only not excessively so. The scattered patches of cheese do melt and ooze some as the pizza bakes in the wood-and-gas-fired oven, but the transformation from solid state towards a liquid one does not turn the whole disk into one milky mess. Devotees of Franco Manca pizzeria at Brixton Market take notice: the surface geology of a Margherita requires molten masses of mozzarella floating alongside fresh basil atop a shallow pool of sweet roma tomatoes over a lunar-like landing. If the cheese is dry, chewy, stringy, tough or otherwise detached from those other elements the ensemble suffers. (I appreciate that Franca Manca’s Giuseppe Mascoli can not afford to use such an expensive cheese given his incredibly low prices. But it would be nice to have the option to pay a couple of pounds more for something better.)
My second pizza at today’s lunch was an extraordinary vongole variation (£12) topped with clams, oregano, cherry tomatoes, garlic, red chili flakes, butter and, most controversially, grated pecorino. This violation of the no-cheese-with-seafood mandate was immediately overshadowed by the defiance of not so much a rule as an unspoken trust assuring all, regardless of age, race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation or economic standing, that every pizza topping be edible if not palatable. Pizza East baked the vongole pizza with the clams left in their shells and then served the it that way. I could understand their removing the clams from the shells after the pizza had been baked but couldn’t fathom their leaving this chore in my hands. This would only slow me down when speed was of the essence. From my experience eating clam pizzas at Frank Pepe’s in New Haven, Connecticut I’d learned that no pizza variety loses more of its appeal as it cools and dries. And that’s why leaving the clams in their shells is such a clever bit of total insanity. It keeps them warmer longer, in their broth. (Some entrepreneur, maybe a Dragons’ Den aspirant, should invent a pizza-sized clam shell to replace the thermo insulated pouches now used by pizzerias for home delivery.)
So why am I concerned that Pizza Love will burst my bubble? First, hands-on consultant Bryant Ng, who was chef de cuisine at LA’s Mozza and has overseen the development of the Pizza East pizzas, leaves after dinner service on Monday – day 4. Plaisted, a capable and serious chef who cares about the quality and compatibility of his ingredients, may be able to manage for awhile without Ng at his side. But will his brigade of freshly trained pizzaiolos be able to maintain the high standards as word spreads and this ground-level warehouse fills up with Shoreditch trendhounds? And can they avoid cornicione creep – the infringement of the bubbly crust towards the middle of the smallish pizzas?
These are open questions that even Nick Jones of the Soho House Group, the backer of this venture, may not be able answer. For now I must take comfort in Johnny Mercer’s wise words of resignation:
Maybe it’s just for a day
Love is as changeable as the weather
And after all, how little we know