My top 10 pizzas in London list reflects a global renaissance in the appreciation of Neapolitan pizza. The difference this time is that the feeling is genuine.
Naples shared its love for pizza and dry pasta with the world many years ago but something got lost in translation. Rather than eat pasta al dente and pizza soft, in the Neapolitan way, foreigners learned to do the opposite. Non-Italians at last discovered the pleasures of al dente pasta in the late 20th Century. But only recently have hard-core devotees in the pizza diaspora acquired a soft spot for pizza with a pliable crust.
In regulations set by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana a pizza must be soft, easy to manipulate, bendy. New followers of that pizza fold have been setting up true Neapolitan pizzerias in New York and Tokyo, San Francisco and Sydney, LA and London. Their pizzas are not literally made in Naples, but most are baked in Neapolitan wood-fried brick pizza ovens. When true to its roots the pizza’s puffed cornicione (rim) is airy, dry and cooked through, not bready and gummy.
Much as I revere Naples as the epizzenter of pizza al portafoglio (folded wallet-style) I still like sinking my teeth into pizza al dente providing the crisp crust is sufficiently light and compresses to the chew. That’s why Saporitalia is on the top 10 list at number 3 and Ruben’s Bakehouse at number 9.
For the sake of comparison I’ve limited my consideration of London pizzas to the classic Margherita. If you have to judge pizza on a single variety it has to be the elemental tricolour of green, white and red – basil, mozzarella and tomato.
The omission of more elaborate, less familiar pizza varieties has had two distinct drawbacks: First, some pizzerias made the cut even though not all of the toppings on all of their pizzas are of the highest quality. Secondly, this list passes over a good number of praiseworthy pizzas, from the lardo, egg and spinach pizza at Lardo to the Nduja pizza at Pizza Pilgrims to the Charlie Jones pizza at Story Deli to the rotated specials at Home Slice Pizza.
Slow food is a good thing, especially when it comes to pizza dough. The best are prepared with the smallest amount of yeast and therefore require fermentation lasting 24 hours or longer. What I cannot tolerate is slow eating of pizza. It must be consumed hot.
Top 10 Pizzas in London
Upon arriving for the first time at the original Franco Manca I was so excited I asked a waitress to pinch me. She said I would have to queue like everyone else. Happily the pizzeria beneath the Brixton Market arcades and its then sub-£5 (now £5.90) Margherita were no dream. I soon discovered if there was any reality pinching to be done it should be of the fluffy, chewy, char-spotted cornicione that frames its pliable crust. Conscientious sourcing is central to the story line created by Giuseppe Mascoli but he overreached in choosing a mozzarella blend from a Somerset producer. The British cheese solidifies in fast-drying patches over the Margherita, marring the interplay with what has become an absurdly thin layer of tomato spread over the sourdough platform. The concern with Franco Manco’s expansion is that not every new pizzaiolo at every new location will be up to the challenge inherent in slow fermentation and fast cooking. Even so, Franco Manco’s rapid growth must be viewed as a plus, bringing good pizza at a good price closer to more and more Londoners.
Franco Manca Brixton, Unit 4, Market Row, Brixton, S9 – 020 7738 3021
Franco Manca Chiswick, 144 Chiswick High Street, Chiswick, W4 – 020 8747 4822
Franco Manco Stratford, Westfield Stratford, E20 – 020 8522 6669
Franco Manca Northcote, 16 Northcote Rd, Battersea, SW11 – 020 7924 3110
Franco Manca Tottenham Court, 98 Tottenham Court Rd, Fitzrovia, W1T – 020 7580 1913
Franco Manca Balham, 53 Bedford Hill, Balham, SW12 – 020 8772 0489
Franco Manca Southfields, 277 Wimbledon Park Road, SW11 – 020 8780 1048
Franco Manca Broadway Market, 52 Broadway Market, Hackney, E8 – 020 7254 7249
In Twickenham Monday and Tuesday are the loneliest nights of the week. That’s when Refettorio, the pizzeria-restaurant connected to Ruben’s bread bakery, is closed. The idea is to give both the sourdough and Daniele the pizzaiolo sufficient time to rest. Daniele is from Puglia and owner Igor Occhiali (his son’s name is Ruben) is from Tuscany, which may explain why the crust is crisper than any Neapolitan would allow. The sourdough base is much stiffer than Franco Manca’s but happily there is nothing cardboardy about a sourdough base that’s thin as a debit card in the middle yet bubbly and charred in all the right places. The fior di latte (cow’s milk mozzarella) is superbly oozy, drippy and stringy and, in a single word, dangerous.
52 Heath Road, Twickenham, TW1, 020 8892 9513
I can’t imagine what circumstances led Nadia Leonetti and Stefano Casanova of Addommè to leave the glamourous island of Capri to set up shop in Streatham. But if I were the official in charge of bringing tourism to that South London district I’d put their pictures at the top my home page, together with a photo of their Margherita, if only to show more famous pizzerias in posh London districts how fresh, hand-cut fior di latte should behave atop a pizza. Forget the polkadot aesthetic: On this pizza canvas the white and red elements flow freely into one another to form a pink surface. Naples native Peppe Silvestro is a gifted pizzaiollo: His pizzas are blackened and blistered yet the mozza stays pure white and the crispness is just enough to make a noise when you break into it. Reasonable people may disagree about which Streatham pizzeria is superior, Addommè or Bravi Ragazzi. If I were the official in charge Streatham tourism I’d organise comparison tastings.
17-21 Sternhold Ave, Streatham Hill, SW2, 020 8678 8496
The first edition of Gambero Rosso guide to the pizzerias of Italy included seven foreign addresses: two in Paris, two in New York and three in Battersea. A single area of South London merited more pages than all of Venice or Trieste. Sadly, one of those eateries, A Fenestella, has closed, leaving locals to choose between two authentic Neapolitans: the admirable if inconsistent Donna Margherita and the outstanding Pizza Metro. Every millimetre of Pizza Metro’s wall space is covered with Naples-themed movie posters, murals and kitsch when all you really want to see is a pizzaiolo pull his puffy-rimmed, lightly charred, gently crisp, metre-long pizzas from the wood oven. The trouble with long pizzas, however, is they’re nearly impossible to rotate in the oven for even cooking. One end might be a little dark and charred; the other, pale and underbaked. I prefer the round ones.
Pizza Metro Battersea, 64 Battersea Rise, Battersea, SW11 – 020 7228 3812
Pizza Metro Notting Hill, 147-149 Notting Hill Gate, 020 7727 8827
A mural of Naples, its cartoon monochrome an amusing departure from the kitschy landscapes of pizzerias past, may reveal Sacro Cuore’s origins. But you discover its the Margherita pizza that points you in the direction of Naples with greater speed and accuracy than the most advanced GPS navigation. The tomato sauce and fior di latte float over a wonderfully light, elastic, charred crust. Bend a triangular slice and the loose toppings will collect in the middle and, upon first bite, shoot flavours throughout your mouth. Sacro Cuore is the proud sibling of Santa Maria and lacks only the consistency of the best pizzeria in London.
45 Chamberlayne Rd, London NW10 3NB (see map), 020 8960 8558
The crust of a Bravi Ragazzi Margherita can be so light it’s a wonder it doesn’t collapse under the pressure of their moist toppings. But weightlessness in a Neapolitan-style pizza is a reflection of strength, from the way the dough is formed and rested to the manner it which it is stretched. By this measure Michele, the top Bravi Ragazzi pizzaiolo, is one powerful dude. The pizza is hardly flawless, but rustic imperfection is one of its charms. The dark spots and air pockets have an old-world authentic about them. The fior di latte goes into the wood-crackling oven as a solid and exits as a liquid. If you want to know where Neapolitan pizza is headed head to Bravi Ragazzi.
2A Sunnyhill Road, Streathham, SW16 – 020 8769 4966
Forget Tower Bridge and Trafalgar Square: The essential London attraction for Southern Italian tourists was Spaccanapoli in Soho, probably because its pizza’s puffy, chewy, smoky-flavoured cornicione was so similar to what they can get at home. When that great pizzeria was evicted by the Crossrail construction project its owner, Mimmo Savarese, sent his most loyal customers as well as Nicola, his best pizzaiolo, to Santoré, Spacccanapoli’s sibling restaurant in Clerkenwell. Nicola’s Margherita is eminently foldable, its toppings reliably juicy in the best possible way.
59-61 Exmouth Market, Clerkenwell, EC1 – 020 7812 1488
If you want to understand my desire for a molten mozzarella hurry to Saporitalia and see how the islets of fior di latte melt into one another, keeping soft and fluid even minutes after the pizza has been pulled from the wood-fired oven. Lift the pizza up from one end and the cheese slowly slides to the other, loyal to its substratum of rich plum tomatoes but not stuck to it. If I speak of this Margherita less as an inanimate object than a living thing that’s because it is.
Valentino Ferro was head pizzaiolo at Pizza Metro Pizza in 2009, when that Battersea pizzeria topped the first version of this list. His thin crust, neither too crisp nor too soft, has just the right give. Its sure break in the mouth is a special chew sensation.
22 Portobello Road, London W11 1LJ (see map), 020 7243 3257
I salted my Margherita with tears when I heard Antonio, L’Antica’s star pizzaiolo, would be leaving the Hampstead pizzeria and moving to Tenerife. The response of the co-owners, Luca de Vita and Alessandro Betti, was somewhat more productive. They nurtured two superb replacements, Michele Fallea and Giacomo Guido, and slowly – very slowly – improved their dough through longer fermentation at ambient temperature. The result has been an incredibly light dough, as is the fashion in Naples. It’s as if the cornicione were inflated with helium and not air. The only thing keeping the weightless Margherita from levitating above the table are its layers of tomato sauce and dreamy fior di latte. Now, if Antonio tried to return to L’Antico I would advise UK Visas and Immigration to stop him at the border and, if necessary, revoke his passport.
6 Heath Street, Hampstead, NW3 – 020 7431 8516
The pizza apostles of Santa Maria may suffer a rare bout of ambivalence upon seeing their pizzeria climb to the top of this list: All pleasure taken from any validation of their good taste will be tempered by fears of longer queues. You’ll know the feeling once you’ve seen the reflection of a deity in the Margherita’s shimmering pools of milky, oozy and, yes, salty surface of fior di latte . It’s the pizza against which all other London Margheritas must be measured. This pizza, like its demanding co-owners Pasquale Chionchio and Angelo Ambrosio, is Neapolitan to the core, its soft, delicate yet resilient crust holding up to pressure, from the beautiful tomato sauce as well as your eager fingers.
15 St Mary’s Road, London W5 5RA (see map), 020 8579 1462