I HAVE this theory that in any town or city you are never more than 500 yards from a pizza Margherita or Napoletana.
With pizzas as ubiquitous as chips or Big Issue sellers, youngsters of today might find it hard to believe that there are people alive who grew up as kids and survived their teenage years without ever seeing one, let alone knowing how to eat it.
People like me.
Today the entire British pizza industry is worth around £2billion – from frozen and chilled pizzas, takeaways and deliveries to the pizza chains and pizzerias on every High Street – yet this little disc of Italian dough came very late to Britain.
The first Pizza Express opened in London in the mid-Sixties, Pizza Hut arrived from the USA in 1973 and Domino’s started here in 1985.
So for many of us life is marked BP and AP – Before Pizza and After Pizza.
And to think that most of the Swinging Sixties was pizza-less.
Pizza Express, which now has over 400 outlets in Britain, is the granddaddy of the British pizza chains.
It recently opened its fourth outlet in Sheffield on Ecclesall Road (a fifth should appear in Millennium Square around March) while simultaneously planning inroads into India.
Pizza Express is the middle classes’ pizza chain and the 30-odd pizzas are mostly Italian or American, with the now obligatory topping devised by a guest chef (here Francesco Mazzei of London restaurant L’Anima) and another the winner of a customer competition.
The chain no longer belongs to founder Peter Boizot, who noticed pizzerias all over France and Germany “and thought I’d give it a go.”
He imported an oven and a chef from Italy and founded the first restaurant in Wardour Street, Soho, in 1965.
The current owner is the Gondola group which has revamped the brand. The blue and white logo has changed colour to black and white and, as is the way with these chains, we’ve got concepts.
The first is ‘stripeology,’ introducing stripes in the décor, while the second involved retraining the 10,000 staff to, and I quote, “ focus on personality and being empowered to offer their own take on the service experience.”
Our first visit was on an evening where the automatic doors thought they were in Strictly Come Dancing and doing a mad jig. There was a long queue and no-one to mind it so the customer experience was zero. We opted for Plan B: take-home fish and chips.
Our second visit was at lunch, when it was quieter, although the doors were still dancing or being petulant. I had to wrench them open.
It’s a light, bright, friendly space with different sized tables, plastic chairs and banquet seating plus, if you want to watch the pizza chef in action, a few seats at the counter on one end of the open kitchen.
The décor nods to Sheffield, with a mural on one wall depicting the city’s manufacturing industry, and, a nice touch, knives stuck into the walls as hangers.
The last time I reviewed Pizza Express I brought with me a measuring tape following up a rumour that the 12-inch pizzas had shrunk. It was an urban myth. Now, you don’t get any promises on size but they come classic, Leggara (like a Polo with a hole cut in the middle, for slimmers) and Romana, thinner and crispier.
In my experience you know what you’re getting at Pizza Express, which is a decent meal but unlikely to blow your socks off.
We began by dodging the dough balls (a Boizot invention) and sharing a plate of classic antipasto (£9.60) with a pleasant assortment of meats, peppers, tomato and strips of pizza.
I then had a Four Seasons classic pizza (£9.10), because it was the only one with anchovies. I only got three, which seemed a bit mean, but with a soft, doughy base, it was a pleasant chew.
My wife had a mare et monti (sea and mountains) Leggera pizza, the one like a Polo, for £9.65, some 55p more. At first sight it also seems mean because you get less but it does come with a salad in the middle. This was topped with prawns, mushrooms, onion and mozzarella (sadly, not buffalo) and she liked it.
Pizza Express is child-friendly and on our afternoon was well-stocked with yummy mummies and their offspring. There’s a children’s menu and plenty of high chairs.
Slimmers will enjoy the offer of a coffee with a mini sweet for £3.95, as did my wife with an espresso and cupcake-sized lemon meringue. I had a decent man-sized tiramisu (£4.95) and an Americano coffee for £2.
As it was less busy staff were quite happy to chat – sorry, focus on personality – and tell me all about stripeology, plans to expand upstairs, and coming changes to the menu. By the time you read this the pizzas with a hole will be thinner.
Once Pizza Express made its pizzas on site from the dough upwards.
Now it comes ready-made so while that ensures consistency there is a certain sameness, no matter which branch you visit.
But what Pizza Express does, it does very well and I’ve absolutely no reservations about manager Craig Humphriss’s take on the service experience.
We paid £39.25 for food, £3.60 for a small Peroni and £2.25 for a Diet Coke.
501 Ecclesall Road, Sheffield S11 8PR.
Tel: 0114 267 6626.
Open Mon-Sat 11.30am-11pm, Sun 12-10pm. Licensed. Vegetarian meals. Disabled toilets and access. Street parking. Website: www.pizzaexpress.com
My star ratings (out of five):