Following the critical acclaim of my first book, ‘Tesco’s Finest: A Comprehensive Review of 2, 715 Tesco Stores’, I’m very pleased to announce I’ve been working on a secret project, ‘423 Pizzas: A Review of Every Pizza Express in the UK’. The first draft is with my editor, but I thought I’d be naughty and give you a quick freebie:
Pizza Express #137: The Former Bank at Streatham Hill
This Express is located at a convenient distance from what is arguably Streatham’s most salubrious rail station (it is, at any rate, the highest above sea level by quite a margin). One enters through an understated and moderately-oiled revolving door, which reminds the more knowledgeable diner that this is a former bank. The walls feature, to quote Pizza Express’ own promotional literature, “quirky artwork based on the lives and interests of former bank managers” (see inset).
The spirit of high-street banking is still very much alive in the room; there is a rumour that if one orders the Bruschetta con Funghi with a wink, the waiter will still perform some simple banking services, such as cashing cheques and setting up mini-cash-ISAs.
Seating was prompt. We were placed ‘in the stalls’, just in front of the open-plan kitchens. At first I was delighted by this: I could play my favourite game of guessing which person in the room ordered which pizza (and who’s ordered two pizzas for themselves – yes, it happens!). Soon it dawned on me that perhaps I wasn’t so lucky. My close proximity to the glistening garlic butter and lovingly pummelled dough soon got me salivating. This only got worse with time. I’d found myself in the pizza red light district: everything looked very appealing, but none of it was mine.
[For more on similar experiences I’ve had, see #245: Stoke.]
Something I haven’t yet mentioned was that we were deep into the Christmas season. There are positives and negatives to being in a Pizza Express near Christmas. The menu features a few appealing bonus dishes (mainly based around meatballs), and one is given the fresh opportunity to get one’s dough balls cunningly disguised as pudding. Yet the price you pay for this is: over-crowding, over-tinseling, and a ruining of the subtle modernist decor by an infestation of tacky stickers advertising Arthur Christmas.
The Dough Balls order-to-consumption time frame (DBOCTF) was well over the upper quartile, at 17 minutes i.e. we were not off to a good start. I think we counted 245 dough balls passing our eyes before any found their way to us. Torture. At the point where we crossed the Dough Ball Threshold, it was of course incumbent on me to inform the waiter. He was obliging, but to this day I lay the blame at the feet of the Dough Ball chef, who was positively retarded at the butter-on-dough phase. They almost made up for this by being instantly forthcoming with two tap waters, nicely iced and presented.
Dough Balls were satisfactory, without ever reaching anything exceptional. The Dough Balls were very similar to #45: Coventry Town Centre, whereas the garlic butter was reminiscent of classic #1: Wardour Street.
Things were far worse with the Garlic Bread. We experienced typical problems I am now woefully familiar with: pools of excess butter, and this despite a punishingly low garlic-on-dough ratio. My partner expressed mild feelings of self-loathing at this point, but I have to say I did not share these sentiments.
At this point I was certainly thinking: everything depends on the main course. A lot of pressure would be on my Salsiccia Speziata (Romana). My partner ordered the Padana (Romana).
There was a real ‘hubbub’ to the place. It was very obvious that there were no soft furnishings to absorb noise, and again with our proximity to the kitchen, it was very difficult to reach a state of tranquillity. What’s more, the chairs were a bit too ‘school cafeteria’, prompting me to write a letter to Pizza Express head office on the subject of maintenance of the brand image.
When our two Romanas came, my face must have been visibly gobsmacked by their choice of plates. The Romana radius (19 cm) overshot the plate by a good 4 cm, leading to a pizza-cutting ordeal that you don’t associate with the franchise. Presented like this, they were unfeasibly large pizzas which should have come with a logistics warning (whereas, at e.g. #195: Liverpool – Wirral, the large plates complemented the Romanas’ majestic abundance beautifully. In the end I had to forsake all cutlery to settle for hands-on manoeuvring.
Now, I could write a separate volume just on my Salsiccia Speziata (Romana). Overall it was made to a high standard. First let’s get the niggles out of the way: too thin, too crispy, and with an off-putting taste of burnt. The spicy Calabrese sausages were spread out far too thin, like distant oases spread out across a desert of grana padano. Yet the sausage meat itself was divine, as was the fusion of fennel and mascarpone. Soon I’d whittled my previously intimidating Romana down to sub-plate-radius, and I could finally pick up my cutlery, going into overdrive, and initiating what was probably my finest Pizza Express stuffing of all December. Yum.
[I had dessert at home. Vienetta.]
In the end I was reminded of why I endure the tacky Christmas promotions and the long, languishing wait for Dough Balls. Another Pizza Express had earned its place in the mighty franchise.
Next chapter: #138: London Bridge – “How Should a Pizza Restaurant Deal With the Problem of Body Odour?”
Please follow me on Twitter: @PizzEprGourmand.
[For more info on the bank managers featured in the portraits above, click on the following plaques, given in the order of their appearance:]