Francesco Mazzei at Pizza Express

by Jeanne on June 24, 2010

in Meeting bloggers, Restaurants - London

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Call me easily pleased, but I think Pizza Express gets a raw deal.

When I suggest going to a branch of this ubiquitous chain of Italian restaurants for a quick meal, my husband Nick pulls a face and refuses – and he is not alone.  But can somebody please explain to me why people get so sniffy about the place??  Yes, they use electric rather than wood-burning ovens; yes, I suspect that the dough for their bases comes out of some big central site, not lovingly made on the premises by little old Italian nonnas; and yes, there is a depressing sameyness about being able to eat exactly the same food in every metropolitan area in Britain.  But all that aside, considering the volumes we are talking about, they churn out a pleasingly thin-crust (as opposed to the travesties at Pizza Hut!) and fairly consistent pizza, there are always fresh flowers on the table, and I would be lying if I did not confess a small addiction to their dough balls ;-) 

But what would happen if you combined the regimented uniformity of the Pizza Exprress approach with some culinary inspiration from a renowned Italian chef?  Francesco Mazzei, acclaimed for his authentic, refined Calabrian cooking at L'Anima, has provided the answer by agreeing to create six new menu items for Pizza Express.  And earlier this year, a bunch of food bloggers were invited along to meet the man himself, sample the dishes, and to try their hand at pizza-making at the Curtain Road branch of Pizza Express. Even Nick was excited – as was I.  What girl wouldn't be, with the prospect of meeting the man who introduced spicy Calabrian sausage to London? ;-)

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While we waited for the man himself to arrive, we chatted to fellow food bloggers Dinner Diary, Food Stories, Cheese & Biscuits, Hollow Legs, and met the lovely Mathilde's Cuisine and the Ginger Gourmand.  At the same time we were snacking on the first two items that Francesco has added to the menu:  the Insalata Semplice (torn ciabatta bread, buffalo mozzarella, vine and santos tomatoes tossed in red onions, chives, Calabrian oregano and basil); and the Tricolore starter (buffalo mozzarella, spicy guacamole and marinated roasted tomatoes on a crisp base).  When Francesco arrived, he rather resembled an Italian version of Marco-Pierre White and quickly filled the room with his good humour and infectious enthusiasm for food.  

We were treated to a quick demonstration of how to make the Insalata Semplice, followed by the two of the pizzas that he has added to the menu:  the tomatoless Mia Sofia (topped with mozzarella, a blend of portobello, button and oyster mushrooms infused with truffle paste, chives, Calabrian oregano and garlic); and the Calabrese (slices of spicy Calabrese sausage, fiery green chillies, roquito peppers and hot nduja sausage, all topped with fior di latte mozzarella and watercress tossed in basil pesto).  Suitably trained, we were then all issued with aprons and turned loose on pieces of pizza dough.  Our very patient tutor showed us how to spin the dough around to get the base thin enough, but despite a lot of flour everywhere, my base stubbornly resisted all efforts and remained a good inch too small in circumference.  C'est la vie! Good thing, then, that we were later all given perfectly stretched bases and bowls of toppings to recreate the Mia Sofia and Calabrese pizzas!

JeanneNickMatilde

 Me, Nick & Mathilde (Photo courtesy of 1000heads)

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Apart from Mathilde, we also had Food For Think and Ravenous and their respective partners on our table, and I have to say that our poor tutor/supervisor had his hands full.  Nobody wanted to follow the recipe for either pizza – everyone wanted to do their own unique take on the pizzas, using ingredients from both, and general mayhem reigned.  I think we probably got the reputation as the disobedient table!! Once we had all made our pizzas, they were whisked away to be baked and were then served to us in the restaurant, with everybody receiving their own pizza back. I have to say that I love, love, love the Mia Sofia.  Although I have finally got over my childhood dislike of tomatoes, I still love tomatoless pizzas.  Throw in some truffle and garlic flavours and I'm sold.  But the biggest surprise of the night was Nick.  This professed Pizza Express sceptic devoured his Calabrese (with loads of extra hot sausage!) like a starving man and pronounced it excellent!  And subsequently he has been heard to express a willingness to visit Pizza Express, "provided Francesco's menu is still available".  Wonders will never cease.

Nick

  Nick & his Calabrese (Photo courtesy of 1000heads)

Big thank you to Claire and all involved in the organisation of this fun event.

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

The Duo Dishes June 25, 2010 at 5:13 am

Wow, this looks like a ton of fun. You definitely got a behind-the-scenes and hands-on look into what happens.

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Firefly June 25, 2010 at 8:04 am

Those aren’t just your normal run of the mill pizzas, those are super pizzas. Pizzas are right at the top of my favorite foods list.

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meeta June 25, 2010 at 8:54 am

Oh My! Nick could sell any kind of pizza to anyone with that adorable grin and the outfit. watch it jeanne! you all look like you had a great time. i admit pizza express is not my favorite but hey when hunger hits – i’ll have a slice or two!

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Rosemary June 25, 2010 at 8:55 am

I have no problem with chain restaurants, so long as the quality is there.This looks like a cut above Debonairs or Scooters for sure.

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Wendy t June 25, 2010 at 9:00 am

What fun. I must say we went to Pizza Express last time I was in the UK and it was not bad at all! Have a lovely weekend. xxx

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Kerri June 25, 2010 at 10:28 am

That was a fun night, we picked up some useful tips for making pizza at home which we’ve used a couple of times.
I don’t mind Pizza Express. I like the fact that it’s always the same and you know exactly what you’re going to get. Stephen is firmly on Nick’s side though :)

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Kerri June 25, 2010 at 11:00 am

That was a fun night, we picked up some useful tips for making pizza at home which we’ve used a couple of times.
I don’t mind Pizza Express. I like the fact that it’s always the same and you know exactly what you’re going to get. Stephen is firmly on Nick’s side though :)

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Brian Muirhead June 25, 2010 at 2:33 pm

Totally agree!! The fact that its always the same and you know exactly what you are going to get is great when what you get is good quality food served with friendly attentive service in a clean restaurant!

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norma June 25, 2010 at 3:20 pm

I enjoyed this post. Thanks

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nina June 25, 2010 at 4:13 pm

Heck, that is a lot of pizza, my friend!!! Not sure what topping to choose, they all look so good!! Nic…well, pizza boy outfit does not look good I must say..not a career choice for him, i’d say!!

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Sarah, Maison Cupcake June 26, 2010 at 11:38 am

I suppose pizza is one of those things that can be done in so many ways that rather like sandwiches, everyone has their own preferences. Personally my favourite pizza chain is Strada but I would never dismiss Pizza Express and they do make up for the blanket nationwide menu by ringing the changes with some new stuff each season. I’m such a numpty with how things are cooked though that they might as well be putting pizza dough in a toaster for all I’d probably notice. My main complaint with Pizza Express would be the acoustics and lighting in many of their branches – very noisy and dark.
I must confess too, with all my Bejam credibility, that when in the mood, I do have a soft spot for Pizza Hut duvet style bases and the hideous Mr Whippy style “ice cream factory” of revolting chocolate beans and squirty syrup. *sound of barrels being scraped* It must be an 80s nostalgia thing!!!

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Helen June 28, 2010 at 9:12 pm

I love that picture where Kirsten is standing in the background with flour all over her face.

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Jeanne @ CookSister! July 13, 2010 at 4:33 pm

@The Due Dishes – it was a blast – and stretching your pizza base is harder than I imagined!!
@Firefly – hahaha you got that right! There was so much topping on Nicks it was practically groaning under the weight!
@Meeta – it did rather suit him :) I like the rosy red wine cheeks!!
@Kerri – it was a fun night, wasn’t it? And yes, there is a definite pro- and anti-Pizza Express divide in our house too. I don’t think it is bad at all – and i rather like their salade Nicoise!
@Rosemary – Pizza Express is not great pizza as such, but it is pretty consistent and DEFINITELY a step up from Debonairs/Scooters!
@Wendy – I think it is compulsory for every visitor to the UK to have a meal at Pizza Express ;-)
@Brian – there is a lot to be said for consistency & knowing what you’re going to get…
@Nina – I’m offended – I think he looks quite fetching ;-) My toppings were the mushrooms & truffle oil & it was DIVINE!
@Sarah – I think for mass-produced pizza, PE does a very good think crust job – although I agree that Strada’s toppings are better. You are right abotu the acoustics though – the total lack of soft furnishings can make them ridiculously noisy when busy. I do love the one on the south bank with the view of St Paul’s though! Can’t say I like Pizza Hut ever, but there is a place in my hometown that serves soft-serve ice cream in a cup with disgustingly sweet caramel sauce that hardens – to DIE for!! 80s nostalgia indeed…!
@Helen – there was rather a lot of flour on faces rather than on tables by the end ;-)

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Kit July 20, 2010 at 8:16 pm

Pizza Express always used to be the one PIzza chain I would visit in England. I’d love to have had that lesson in pizza base twirling! Sounds great fun.

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