Pizza chains, or indeed any food chain, are not my usual preference for dining out. It’s not that they can’t provide decent meals, but by their very nature they have a concept which is franchised out, and from which the individual restaurant cannot deviate – new dishes will be innovated centrally and distributed to all branches. And let’s face it, pizza is and always will be hot bread with a few toppings.
They will invariably stick to a set menu, of which many dishes will be manufactured in a factory somewhere, and the remainder will be made by strict recipe from set starter ingredients (most of which arrive in large plastic tubs.) For my liking, they are too regimented and offer food that has been through their distribution chain, rather than fresh local ingredients in season. The worst ones will even freeze their dough and send it out to the restaurant, which to my mind is a total abomination.
Worst of all, they care far more about their brand image far more than providing the best food and dining experience possible.
Luckily there are some that provide decent quality food with fresh ingredients. In the Italian market, there seem to be ones heading for the space above the Pizza Huts but below the bespoke top quality fresh food restaurants, of which most towns tend to have their own charming examples (near to me, for example – here and here.) Pizza Express, a chain that has been around for some while, belies its name and competes for the same turf as the likes of Strada, Zizzi, Prezzo, among others.
My friend and I ended up in Pizza Express for one reason: it was part of the Orange Wednesdays promotion, whereby you can buy two tickets for the price of one, and also two pizzas and two lots of dough balls for the price of one each, which is precisely the sort of deal that chains specialise in.
Bear in mind that to make a pizza is at basics a pretty cheap form of food, which is why there are so many options for buying pizza. With bulk buying, you can assemble a large pizza with a range of toppings for well under a quid, so to justify charging the best part of 12 quid a time you need to add significant value to attract customers. Not only that, in this market segment, they also hope to attract customer loyalty through the little touches.
The one thing Pizza Express does have which would attract me, as a lover of jazz and pretty much any live music, is the Pizza Express Live Jazz Club in Soho (I once went there to see a hero of mine, guitar virtuoso Antonio Forcione), though live music is sometimes played at a number of other venues, but my no means all – certainly not the one in Braintree. If they did, I suspect I would be a regular, regardless of food – though if I were PE I would want the food and venue to stand out a mile from all competitors.
The Braintree restaurant, next to the Freeport outlet village, is a great location to pick up passing trade but as a restaurant it is something of a warehouse. I’ve been there twice, and on both occasions it was doing a brisk trade. The first time my friend and I were place at an open table not far from the entrance. Admittedly I was not wearing my hearing aids, but the buzz of noise meant it was almost impossible for me to hear my friend 2 feet away, let alone translate the words of a charming waitress hailing from somewhere in Eastern Europe.
My friend (different friend) had to translate, which is a pretty humiliating state of affairs for me as well as a condemnation of the acoustics of the restaurant. The second time was in a better location – at a table at the back, on a semi-circular red bench. We could just about hear ourselves think and conduct a conversation, though to onlookers it probably looked intimate, by the very nature of my trying to hear what was said.
Second criticism: let’s not mince words here, the interior decor is cheap and shoddy. Flimsy plastic tables, insubstantial chairs, light fittings that would not have been out of place in MFI. This was not a classy joint by anyone’s standards – not a place to impress a date, for example. “Pizza in Style” says their logo – this was not the style I would expect. Frankly, I expected far better.
Otherwise it is standard PE: open kitchen, a different charming East European waitress (have Pizza Express gone on a mass recruitment drive in Poland and Lithuania?), Italian beers and wines, usual menu of pizzas, the odd pasta, salads and varied salads, sides and desserts. Not awe-inspiring and restricted in variety, but they have made an effort to make the pizzas sound more attractive by the inclusion of designer cheffy combinations, competitions to find a new topping and so on.
Our sample meal began with olives, which, let’s face it, you can buy to a decent standard in any supermarket these days. These were not exceptional specimens for £2.30 but were edible, pitted but unstuffed. Could do better there, maybe? We followed this with the 2 for 1 doughballs, to which I am rather partial. Shame there was only plain butter to go with them – a garlic butter would have hit the spot, but none was offered. However, dipping dough ball into the olive oil did work well.
Our pizzas were described on the menu thus:
- Da Morire: Gorgonzola D.O.P, crispy pancetta, caramelised leeks, artichoke, mozarella, rosemary, chilli oil. Created by Simon Pritchard, who beat over 60,000 entries to win our ‘Create Your Pizza’ competition.
- Francesco Mazzei: A pizza created for us by our award winning guest chef. The Calabrese, our hottest pizza, is inspired by the food from Francesco’s home town in Calabria. Calabrese – Spicy Calabrese sausage D.O.P, hot soft n’duja sausage, green chillies, roquiti peppers, red & yellow peppers, mozarella, rocket, pesto, oregano, grand padano.
It would be fair to say both proved very tasty. My Calabrese pizza was undoubtedly the spicier of the two, though the meld of flavours seemed to work well in both. However, the base of both was floppy and failed to yield up either the depth of flavour or crispiness you would expect of the best – and well short of Italian standards, to which PE apparently aspires.
But then, how often are pizzas in the UK anything remotely like proper Italian pizzas in Italy? There, toppings are a much simpler affair, with the bulk of the effort put into making the tastiest, crispest dough, often cooked in a proper wood oven. When, for example, did you last see pizza bianchi (ie. pizza without tomato sauce) in the UK? Never, in my experience!
No doubt PE would say they have done all their market research and determined precisely what the British consumer wants out of a pizza, though sometimes I wish they would ignore focus groups and go instead for the true source product. In short, a pretty good pizza, but the base was never going to be up to the standards of the best, coming from a typical commercial pizza oven.
The side salad certainly was simple: rocket (I rather overdid the rocket, between the pizza and salad), grand padano and what was described as “balsamic syrup.” My friend commented that it was nowhere near as good as my home-made salad dressing, which includes balsamic and is made freshly. Sadly the “balsamic syrup” was a bit of a strange substitute, and presumably straight out of a bottle from suppliers.
We passed on desserts and coffees, though in the past I have found the latter to be adequate, if not exceptional. The Orange Wednesday offer saved me £14 off a bill that would otherwise have reached £46. Not great value for money, especially given that it is a menu limited and focused on an essentially cheap food like pizza. You wished they had ventured further into the Strada and Prezzo market by offering grills and other mains, but presumably PE is happy to stick to the knitting and make money from expensive pizzas. For an Orange Wednesday it was fine, as a regular haunt – sorry, Pizza Express, not that impressed. For the money we could have bought two courses each, plus drink, at a fine restaurant in elegant surroundings, like Il Principe or La Piazza.
Perhaps most of all, Pizza Express needs to sort out its identity and decide whether it is a serious restaurant or a mass market fast food production line. At the moment it’s sitting uncomfortably between two stools and falling down the crack! Popular it may be, but you need more than promotions to attract customers to repeat visit. As of the moment, I would not be tempted back.
Oh, and if you ever wanted to try pizza at its very finest, try a small family-run trattoria in the old part of Naples or similar Italian cities. Less truly is more sometimes, and in the case of pizza focusing on the basic cooking technique to deliver a first class product is all that matters, trust me.