Great news: there IS good pizza in London!
I recently spent a week in The Big Smoke while hosting an exhibition of amazing pizza boxes from around the world and you KNOW I took the opportunity to sample as much pizza as possible. The kind folks at Pizza Pilgrims offered to escort me and Steph (Mantis, exhibition designer) to the most talked-about joints in town. Here’s a rundown of our pizza crawl with a couple additional bonus stops from throughout the week.
First up was Pizza Pilgrims, a convenient starting point for our gracious hosts. Two brothers started the operation as a truck and now have two brick-and-mortar locations. They do typical Neapolitan pizza and they do it very well. The base is light and puffy, as expected, and toppings are spot-on. The oven may have been a bit hot that night, as you can see by the fast bake. Still, flavor and balance were there. These Pilgrims have certainly settled into a comfy zone and everyone we talked to along the way had heard of them. Very cool spot.
Pizza boxes on the wall at Pizza Pilgrims.
On top of having excellent pizza, the Pizza Pilgrims location we visited in Soho boats this fantastic collection of pizza boxes from both Napoli and London! You gotto love a place that puts its competition on their own walls. But as my friend John Arena (Metro Pizza) says, they aren’t competition they’re colleagues. As we continued to learn throughout the night, the folks at Pizza Pilgrims are wonderful human beings who also happen to crank our lovely pizzas.
Next up was Homeslice (not to be confused with Austin’s Homeslice), just around the corner from Pizza Pilgrims. They also use a wood-fired oven but opt for a large New York style instead of sticking to Neapolitan. The resulting pizzas are large and thin, perfect for sharing among two or three people. As the name suggests, you can also get pizza by the slice.
The oven’s mouth is slightly wider than most recent Neapolitan ovens, a necessary difference for anyone wanting to bake giant pizzas. My personal opinion on this is that the oven’s running too hot for such a large pizza. Our slices were saggy, which is manageable for small pies but not with something this size. I’d love to see the temp lower and a longer bake to get some structure in there. The photo on their website shows the fire off to the right but this night they were burning directly along the back wall. Believe it or not, this does make a big difference and I wonder if the pizza would have come out differently with another oven tender on duty.
Ape & Bird’s questionable mozzarella di bufala Margherita.
Stop #3 was Ape & Bird, one of the many restaurants in the POLPO family. I’ve never been to any of their other restaurants but from what I hear they are the culinary standard in London right now. All hits. Ape & Bird is a very cool spot that looks like it’s taking its cues from contemporary Brooklyn trends like Edison bulbs everywhere and exposed industrial surfaces. It’s a bit much, but the secret bar downstairs looks totally amazing. Word on the street is this place wasn’t doing too well so they added a pizza oven to inject some life into it. I wish I could say it was helping. We didn’t love this pizza.
The Pavesi oven at Ape & Bird.
I’m about to get real here so buckle up. We had a Pizza Margherita with mozzarella di bufala, a cheese whose creamy-tartness should never be blocked by invasive flavors. But this pizza was extremely salty and the culprit was a layer of low-moisture mozzarella. So this was really a cheese pizza with clumps of buffalo mozzarella. It’s sort of a metaphor for the restaurant itself. You can dump expensive cheese on it but it doesn’t change the fact that you have problems with what’s underneath.
We hustled the fifteen minute walk over to the pizzeria I’d heard most about in all of London: Franco Manca. I have no idea which location we visited but they have six and don’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. FM does a Neapolitan pizza in site-built wood fired ovens. The big difference here is that their dough is a natural fermentation (sourdough) with minimum 20 hour rise. I heard that this was their thing but lots of people talk big about sourdough and don’t deliver. Franco Manca is legit. This was the best pizza I ate in London.
We were in a mad rush getting into cabs for the next stop so I didn’t even get a photo of their pizza but TRUST ME it’s the real deal. There were elements at other pizzerias I preferred but the crust goes a long way for me and Franco Manca really impressed me.
My second favorite pizzeria of the night was stop #5: L’Antica Pizzeria Napoletana in Hampstead. Here we have yet another wood fired pizzeria and these guys also work in the Neapolitan realm. Of all the places we tried, this is was most pure representation of the style in town. It was exactly like pizza in Naples, right down to the confident pizzaiolo - he even named a pizza after himself, the “Giacomo Casanova.”
Londoners looking for true pizza Napoletana should go to L’Antica immediately. Get the Pizza Margherita but I didn’t taste anything that was less than delicious. If you travel with a big crew and plan on sharing, be sure to stagger your pizza ordering so they don’t all come out at the same time. Neapolitan pizza gets tough and chewy after five minutes so you have to dig in the moment it lands.
Our final stop of the night was Voodoo Ray’s, This really was the perfect closer for our romp around London. It’s a slice shop, pure and simple. The owners already run a bar down the street and a club UNDERNEATH the pizzeria, so they opened the slice shop to catch all the folks that left their other businesses. Smart. The slices are large and topping varieties are ample. Plus the beer selection is wonderful - we had some delicious Beavertown Gamma Ray, whose label alone is enough to make me want to stock it at all times.
The pizza itself wasn’t the best we had all night. A bit overcheesed and slightly underbaked for my liking, but this is a down and dirty slice shop and they’re not going for high cuisine. On a business side, their branding is super tight and I absolutely adore the vibe in there. Just super warm and fresh and fun. Really the perfect way to end a night.
I managed to hit a few additional pizza spots during my six days in London. There’s way more variety than I expected!
Steph and I were really into a cafe on Whitechapel called Exmouth. She liked their latte, I liked their baked goods, we both LOVED their porridge but the pizza was an unexpected treasure. It’s more of a pastry base than a pizza crust, but I’ll let that slide. Just take a look at the photo above. It’s a delight for the tastebuds as much as it is for the eyes.
There’s plenty of Turkish food in town so of course that means we were going to run into some lahmacun sooner or later. It happened at a place called Ustun on Green Lanes in a neighborhood whose name I completely forgot — maybe it’s called Newington? I’ve come across this pizza variant several times but never actually ate it before. It’s covered with lamb and onion with a little cheese to bind. Totally tasty!
They bake in a wood-fired brick oven but it’s much lower in temperature than the ovens you see all around tow doing 90-second pies. This was a little divey joint and I absolutely adored it. I think it’s a father-daughter team. She takes the orders, although she doesn’t speak any English. He stands by to help translate and then they both cook together. Really sweet. We had a lot of fun here but I’m not really qualified to judge lahmacun.
I was already running late to catch my flight home but I absolutely HAD TO check out Pizza East before I split town. This is another wood-fired joint but they’re not going after the Neapolitan ideal. I like that. The crust gets a quick stroke of olive oil before going into the oven, which results in a crispy golden texture. I tried three different pizzas but the best was easily the Pizza Margherita with exceptional mozzarella di bufala. Seriously, this was some excellent cheese.