A nine-year-old girl climbs the grey marble steps of a white, stuccoed building in West London.
It is 1971, and she is with her mother and ten-year-old sister, both girls dressed neatly in crew neck sweaters, pleated skirts and ankle socks. Their mother has promised ‘pizza’, but neither child has a clue what this can be.
They’ve been to the dentist and the younger girl’s mouth is numb after a filling. Then the door opens and she steps into a new world. That girl was me and this is how I remember my first visit to the Pizza Express in Gloucester Road.
Its child-friendly atmosphere — special menus and a generous supply of high-chairs, crayons and colouring paper — made it the go-to weekend venue for harassed parents who could catch up over a glass of wine
First there was the sensory assault, an unfamiliar but blissful perfume; toasted flour, something sweet and herby… plus a richer aroma, perhaps of melting cheese.
The white walls were covered with huge, bright posters, some bearing giant comic strip images (Pop Art, I would later learn). The chairs were moulded plastic, the round tables topped with white marble, and there was dark blue glassware.
Overhead spotlights shone a pool of light onto each table, highlighting a small vase of fresh freesias.
At the back — gasp! — the kitchen was open to view. Hunky men in T-shirts were throwing dough up in the air, twiddling it with their fingers then flattening it, before spreading and sprinkling with all sorts. I was transfixed.
One hour later and all feeling restored to my facial nerves, eating out had changed for ever. Incidentally, I ordered a La Reine pizza that afternoon (mozzarella, tomato, ham and mushrooms). It would remain my favourite for years.
To anyone born after the Pizza Express chain became established with hundreds of restaurants on British High Streets, it will seem ridiculous that a word such as mozzarella was unfamiliar to much of the middle classes in the 1970s.
Yet most had never seen a caper or even an olive, let alone tasted one. My children ate pizza before they could talk, but for myself and my peers — there at its beginning — the influence of Pizza Express cannot be underestimated.
So IT is sad to read, as the Mail reported yesterday, that Pizza Express is in peril. The company, with 620 outlets in the UK and abroad, has huge debt — £1.1 billion on which it paid £93 million in interest in 2018 and reported losses of £55 million.
Now its future seems uncertain, another restaurant victim of the private equity model which borrows to finance expansion and aggressively cuts costs.
Should Pizza Express lose its beloved place on those High Streets, so too will doors close on the memories of many of us.
We will be lamenting the comfort of pizzas past, eaten with family, friends, lovers, children and often — blissfully — alone. Pizza Express is important because it gave post-war young marrieds and their children a glimpse of the sun-kissed joy of Mediterranean cuisine and a taste of authenticity.
We loved the names: Margherita, Napoletana, Marinara, Capricciosa, Neptune, Fiorentina. Each of us of a certain age will have been loyal to one of these for years.
The pizzas, made fresh with natural ingredients in front of our eyes, had integrity. Ashes on the crust, sweet tomato, the delicious whiff of anchovy and baked olives, stinging hot pepperoni and fresh basil . . . that delightful puff of fragrant steam when the plate was placed in front of you.
This was a form of affordable, stylish convenience dining that families could trust.
The Fat Boys appear at Pizza Express with DJ Tim Westwood, Kensington, London, UK on 10 April 1985
Later, its child-friendly atmosphere — special menus and a generous supply of high-chairs, crayons and colouring paper — made it the go-to weekend venue for harassed parents who could catch up over a glass of wine.
Yet its appeal was broader than that: on a tight budget, where else would you take a date and be sure of a delicious meal and a bottle of wine with enough left over for cinema tickets?
It takes an original mind to spot a unique concept, and the founder of Pizza Express, Peter Boizot, was a Cambridge-educated maverick who’d dabbled in everything from toiling as a deckhand to teaching and working in PR as well as for a Rome press agency.
He had first tasted pizza in the 1940s on holiday in Italy and now it sustained him.
On his return to Britain, he missed it so much that in 1965, with a loan of £100, a £600 pizza oven and a young Neapolitan chef, he opened a tiny pizzeria in Wardour Street, Soho. And so began a gastronomic revolution.
So, with the addition of a few tables, Pizza Express was born with its principles already in place: real mozzarella, and tomato sauce made with extra virgin olive oil and fresh basil
Boizot sold slices of pizza at two shillings each, but was persuaded by his Italian staff to offer whole round pizzas as is done in Naples.
So, with the addition of a few tables, Pizza Express was born with its principles already in place: real mozzarella, and tomato sauce made with extra virgin olive oil and fresh basil.
As the branches increased — he would not countenance the phrase ‘chain’, but described his outlets as ‘a necklace of individual gems’ — Boizot indulged his passions. A jazz disciple, two of his London restaurants, in Dean Street and at Hyde Park, became respected venues frequented by big stars.
He ALSO collected modern artworks, plastering the walls of every restaurant so they had an individual look.
And there were many causes close to his heart, which ranged from politics (he was a Lib Dem candidate) to teaching enterprise to the young, and saving Venice.
A vegetarian, it was Boizot who created the Veneziana pizza with capers, pine kernels and sultanas scattered over the dough, and pledged a percentage of the price to the Venice In Peril fund. His favourite, though, was a Quattro Formaggi with chopped basil leaf and extra green peppers. Boizot sold his share in Pizza Express in 1993, for £33 million. He spent the lot before he died aged 89 last year. I like his style.
As to what he would think of the company’s predicament I cannot imagine. Every restaurant has a life, but Pizza Express was phenomenally successful in its heyday and retains a loyal customer base. (Its fans are garnering support on social media using the hashtag #savepizzaexpress.)
The present owners blame a downturn in demand for eating out, but this is not the sole reason. In my view, Pizza Express ignored changing trends. New pizza chains such as Franco Manca showed the way, by specialising in a more authentic Neapolitan pizza using slow fermented ‘sourdough’ baked in wood-fired ovens.
They sell a Margherita for £6.75 while the same pizza from Pizza Express is £10.75. This demonstrates, if nothing else, sheer arrogance on the part of the Pizza Express management.
It’s no surprise the tumbleweed blows through the restaurants on weekday afternoons. The beleaguered chain has endured poor practice scandals over the years, too: paying staff less than the minimum wage (and expecting them to make it up with tips), and ripping us off by making the pizzas smaller while keeping the prices the same.
These things stick in the minds of today’s capricious customers.
I do not want, however, to finish on a negative note. I believe that the present difficulties can be resolved if Pizza Express moves into the modern world of pizza.
A possible restructuring of the company is now being discussed with creditors while insiders insist that the chain is ‘not close to collapse’.
Certainly, it continues to hold its position as the first truly family-friendly restaurant and has a foundation to build on.
For many of us, Pizza Express has long been a delicious, affordable haven in a world of low-grade food sold by unimaginative, often dishonest chains.
It deserves a second chance — to swim, not sink.
- Rose Prince is the author of Dinner & Party: Gatherings. Suppers. Feasts. (Seven Dials, £20.28)
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