The ubiquitous Pizza Express has been serving London pizza for nearly 50 years
If you’re reading this blog it is a pretty safe bet you’ve been to, or at least heard of, Pizza Express at some point in your life. While most will already know what to expect from this venerable chain, we couldn’t overlook the restaurant that first brought pizza to Britain’s high streets. With this in mind, we wandered down to check out the place where it all began.
The Wardour Street branch of Pizza Express first opened its doors in 1965 and has been doing a brisk trade ever since. Over the years the surrounding area became what is now Chinatown and today it sits nestled between Hung’s Chinese Restaurant and Sunrise newsagents. Across the street you can see the occasional punter climb a shabby staircase towards curtained rooms with red light bulbs in the windows, while tourists stream by outside.
The restaurant itself is cosy and smaller than many of the newer additions to the Pizza Express family, something that perhaps contributes to the service which was friendly, attentive and unrushed. We quickly settled down and ordered a Garlic Bread with Mozzarella and a portion of Dough Balls to start, both firm favourites after many visits over the years. The garlic bread was undercooked but the signature dough balls were excellent, served with a generous helping of garlic butter which is always a plus in our book.
Being in the first ever branch of Pizza Express, we thought it appropriate to choose from the Classic pizza menu and leave the newer Romana and Leggera pizzas for another day. Again we opted for old favourites: Fiorentina (spinach, grana padano, egg, garlic oil, black olives) and American Hot (pepperoni, hot green peppers), though it had been a long time since either of us has tried these on the Classic base.
The pizzas arrived and we tucked in with enthusiasm. But the more we discussed it the clearer it became that compared to many of the independent pizzas we had tried recently, these just didn’t measure up. The mozzarella was bland and the olives tasted tinned while the passata resembled the concentrated tomato purée you find in supermarkets. Crucially, Pizza Express cooks its pizzas in metal trays meaning the crust lacks the scorched crispiness that comes from direct contact with the base of the oven.
Now perhaps this is a bit unfair. Pizza Express is after all an international chain with almost 400 restaurants and it is unrealistic to expect the quality of ingredients or attention to detail possible in much smaller, artisan outfits. But both sides are competing for the same customers, and as tastes become more discerning, simply serving a reliable pizza may no longer be enough.
We’ve always seen Pizza Express as something of a benchmark, maintaining that in London there is no excuse for having a pizza inferior to those you find there. And while we still believe this is true, and “PE” will always have a place in our hearts, our recent experiences show that in many cases there is likely to be someone making better pizza nearby.
Garlic Bread with Mozzarella
Peroni Nastro Azzuro 330ml x2
29 Wardour Street