It's not fancy, it's not big and it's not clever, but the scrag end is delicious. For simple, honest opinions on restaurants, recipes, supper clubs and what not, you've come to the right place.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Pizza East, 310 Portobello Road, Portobello

You know Pizza Express? I don’t like it. Strada? Nope. Ask? Don't ask. Domino’s? Urgh. Zizzi? No good. Pizza Hut? No thanks. Papa John’s? No idea.

The English (and sometimes American) chain pizza restaurant is a thing of wonder. Many years ago, most likely in the 1980s, when crass interpretations of extra-national fads were the culinary rage and sophistication’s name was dough ball, a conspiracy was born. It’s the only explanation.

If I wanted to serve food from Timbuktu in a restaurant, I might do some research, even visit the country, and experiment painstakingly until I’d approximated as nearly as possible the edible highlights of the culture, perhaps adding a few more familiar touches to ease it into the local market. The UK pizza pioneers seem to have got together, decided what a good pizza looked and tasted like, and set about creating variations on the theme of its opposite. From the base (sloppy and insubstantial or greasy and thick or chewy and floury, depending on your outlet) to the topping (cheese on cheese on cheese, normally, with the odd bit of ‘chicken’, sweet tomato puree and breakfast sausage thrown in), most of the time these pizzas bear as much resemblance to their ancestral forbears as I do to Clive Owen. It’s not that you can’t enjoy yourself with the poor relation, more that it’s just not the same thing.

In the past few years, there have been inklings of a turnaround, rumours of good pizza at Franco Manca (confirmed by yours truly one boozy Easter Sunday, but not reviewed) and Pizza East. Outside the capital, the situation remains grave, I’m afraid.

But Pizza East (originally in Shoreditch, and with a new branch on Portobello Road) is really quite good. Instead of ‘cheese sticks’ or ‘dough balls’ or ‘chicken wings’, there are antipasti of bone marrow bruschette and mushroom crostini, sides of deep–fried aubergine and interesting salads.

The pizzas come based on flavoursome dough, light but sturdy, thin enough not to swallow the topping but thick enough to hold steady. There’s not a stuffed crust in sight. The toppings follow the best Italian tradition of all: simplicity. Few pizzas have more than two (above cheese and sometimes tomato), and a frankly beautiful courgette, ricotta and oregano offering is about as complicated as things get. Mine, a classic Neapolitan, boasted delicate anchovies and tart, vinegary capers. It was gorgeous.

Because it’s conveniently located in my neck of the woods, I’ve now been twice, like any good reviewer should. The second time, we discovered they serve Aperol, which is always worth knowing, and the pizza menu had changed. Gone but not forgotten, the courgette was missed. Happily, artichokes and ham stood in marvellously. On another pizza, burrata, tomato and basil were wicked.

Pizza East is not flawless by any means. It suffers (not financially) from being insanely popular, which with no booking, means waits of up to 45 minutes for a table at busy times. The bases, while better than most in London, are perhaps a touch on the dry side. Prices are fair, but not especially low, and the waiting staff, though very beautiful, sometimes seem slightly overwhelmed by it all. But it feels like a good local, and it’s fun. Most importantly, if you were looking for the country from which it takes its inspiration, you’d pick Italy. And there aren’t many pizza restaurants in London for which you can say that.

Phil Letts' take: 8/10
Pizza East Portobello on Urbanspoon

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