If you’re going to do something, do it right. Shouldn’t that be the motto of every restaurant? Sad to say, the majority don’t get anywhere close, and a substantial proportion don’t even try.
Take pizzas as an example. I’ve blogged before about how what was a very simple and tasty Italian snack was commercialised, commoditised and bastardised in rapid succession, to the detriment of what a pizza can be. Sure, pizzas are massively popular the world over, but in the process they lost their soul as manufacturers sought to extract more profit from the humble pizza, and in the process turn it into appalling food products that pizza was never intended to be.
Only recently a friend was telling me that Pizza Hut in the States have gone one step beyond the “stuffed crust” and filled it with hot dogs!! Don’t believe me? Look here! To any self-respecting Italian trattoria chef, this would be a total abomination, a Frankenstein’s monster of a dish, but in the US of A absolutely nothing is sacred.
In the unlikely event I ever started a restaurant of my own the goal would be to strip back to the essentials and make quality the watchword – fine fresh local seasonal ingredients cooked in a traditional artisan style to allow a dish to flourish on its own merits. Out with chains and franchises, factories and distribution systems, boil in the bag and microwaved frozen dinners and in with REAL food.
I mention this because if I were ever, hypothetically, to start a pizza emporium it would share many of the virtues of Franco Manca, a small London chain, of which more shortly.
What brought me to eating at Franco Manca was entirely fortuitous, brought on by the tragic death of some poor individual on the railway line at Kelvedon. My condolences to his family (I assume it was a he but may be wrong), though his sad demise meant no services were running for some while during the early evening.
Rather than stand around and wait in the concourse at Liverpool Street, I had a brainwave and decided to stroll around the newly reopened Broadgate Circle, once famed for shops and the winter skating rink, now a venue chock full with restaurants and bars. This is inherently not my normal style, but out of expediency it seemed to be worth a try. I did not, however, expect to eat there, since food and drink at this kind of hub tends to be on the pricey side – and dining alone was not in the plan for a Monday evening.
As I spotted Franco Manca, two things stood out: sourdough pizza, with prices for a freshly baked cheesy bread starting under £6. I read more:
Our pizza is made from slow-rising sourdough and is baked in a wood-burning ‘Tuff’ brick oven made in Naples by a specialised artisan. This oven produces a heat of about 500°c (930°F). The slow levitation and blast cooking process lock in the flour’s natural aroma and moisture giving a soft and easily digestible crust. As a result, the edge (cornicione) is excellent
and shouldn’t be discarded. This system was originally developed by the Greek settlers who, in the 5th century BC founded Neapolis (New Town). They adapted a pre-existing baking tradition to develop this new ‘Pita’, which through experimentation, luck and linguistic distortions, became pizza.
This recipe has been developed under the leading light of Marco Parente and Giuseppe Mascoli.
OK, so wood ovens are fairly commonplace in top notch pizza parlours these days, but sourdough is a very welcome sight, just as it is for breads (and if you aren’t familiar with the concept, see here.) So then – excellent dough, simple and unfussy menu, with good quality running through like a seam of gold (eg. the drinks menu contains plenty of items obviously chosen with care and distinction.)
In short, this is a place established for the love of good food, not dominated by the marketeers and not priced out of existence – and for those small mercies alone they deserved my custom. Worth mentioning the beers, being craft ales bottled specially by the London Brewing Company under the name No Logo. Touché! An antidote to branding, a nod to Naomi Klein, and a very decent pale ale for £3.20 a bottle.
The good experience didn’t stop there either. The restaurant is fairly simply furnished and decorated, has an open kitchen and is populated by waitresses equipped with ear-to-ear smiles. Not once did the grin slip from the features of my server, who matched her friendliness with efficiency throughout. In fact, service was far quicker than expected, possibly a demonstration of the virtues of wood oven cookery or else that the kitchen has a few on the go at any one time.
The result would gladden the heart of any true Italian. The crust and base were nicely singed without being burned to a crisp. The sourdough was surprisingly chewy but unquestionably extracted the promised flavour. The toppings, being a touch of tomato sauce, hand-cut chorizo, fresh sliced buffalo mozzarella and the odd sprig of basil, were all that you needed. Less really can be more sometimes, and don’t let an American super-size venue tell you otherwise.
Beer and pizza, a tenner all told and certainly to be recommended by virtue of simplicity and focus on doing the basics right. If you can’t make it for authentic Neapolitan pizza, this is pretty likely to be the next best thing you find. Nice one, thus demonstrating that you can chance upon a good foodie experience when you least expect it.