It was like a scene from a sick ward. Or, at least, it was at our table.
Two men who ought to have been in their separate homes, wrapped up in front of the fire, sipping Lemsip and eating lozenges, were instead huddled in the corner of a delightful Ludlow bistro wondering which pizza to eat.
“Dat one,” said the man whose airways were so blocked that he was unable to pronounce his ‘Ths’.
Fortunately, and by some miracle of biology, our tastebuds had not been dulled by the seasonal lurgy. And so, against all odds, we were able to enjoy The Best Pizza In Shropshire.
Pizza Ten is a delightful restaurant. Opened a couple of years ago in Shropshire’s original foodie town, it gourmandises the humble pizza. So, instead of plastic cheese and canned tomato sauce toppings, diners can enjoy smoked salmon with horseradish and crème fraîche or king prawns with chorizo, garlic, parsley, chilli and aioli. They don’t do that at Pizza Hut, believe me.
And it’s not just the quality of their pizzas that sets Pizza Ten apart. It’s been cleverly designed and offers clean, sleek lines in a well-lit space near to Ludlow’s Market Square. The service is also spot on: a young-ish waiter was exceptional during our recent dinner there, offering charm and politeness along with efficient, utilitarian service. His performance was faultless.
My friend, as well as being struck down with some bug or other, is also The Most Popular Man in Ludlow. Going out to dinner with him is a bit like taking Prince Harry to the Paparazzi Ball. I was surprised that he only knew 50 per cent of the other diners on our no-chance-of-a-quiet dinner for two night out.
On the way in, there was the obligatory stop to chat to a guy who was hunkering down for early evening food. And on the way out, there was the obligatory stop to chat to a table of four who were enjoying a convivial supper. Eating out with Mr Popular is like taking Jorge Mendes, Jonathan Barnett and Pini Zahavi to the PFA Ball.
Across Shropshire, pizzas are generally viewed as being a cheap and cheerful fast food. The quality can be indifferent, with most offering pile-it-high offerings that have ingredients of dubious merit. Dried herbs, cheap ham, stringy cheese and sugary tomato sauce may taste nice – against all odds – and be popular with the masses. But Pizza Ten takes a different route. It cares about provenance, doesn’t cut corners, refuses to offer cheapo cheapo and in doing so provides standards of food and service that you might find at Napoli’s best emporia.
There are options to suit all tastebuds and preferences and during our latest visit we started with a couple of light appetisers. Mr Popular ate salt and pepper homemade breadsticks with an olive oil dip. Made from the same OO flour that goes into the restaurant’s pizzas, they were crisp on the outside and fluffy within – like a sort of pizza chip. He scooped up the olive oil dip with gusto and made short work of them.
He also ate a brilliant, brilliant plate of fillet of beef carpaccio with sweet pickled onion, rocket, parmesan and thyme oil. Watching him eat it was like watching a cat devour tuna steak, like watching a gourmand feast on foie gras, like watching the Best In Show Crufts Winner eating a slow-roasted marrow bone from some rare breed Wagyu bull. He went silent for the duration, breaking the peace with an occasional, gleeful murmur.
“Enjoy that?” I asked, a question as necessary as asking a football fan whether he’d like free tickets for the FA Cup Final?
He wiped his hand with the back of his mouth. “Maaaan, that was good.” The small pieces of onion had been lightly pickled, adding acidity to the tender, umami-rich beef. The bitter leaves, fragrant and oleaginous dressing and flavour-bomb cheese gave it Batman-esque levels of KerPow.
I opted for a pizette – a kind of mini pizza – which comprised a thin and crispy pizza base strewn with rocket leaves and shavings of parmesan. The peppery bitterness of the rocket and strong, salty flavour of the Parmesan made for a crackerjack pairing – like two explosive dancers rockin’ out on the tastebuds – while the delicate base provided the perfect delivery vessel for them. Nice work, Pizza Chef.
And so to the mains. We’ve both eaten more pizzas at Pizza Ten that is healthy and ummed and aahed about whether to choose other mains. I fancied a beef, veal and chianti Bolognese while he wanted the minted minced lamb and courgette balls in a spiced tomato sauce with crème fraiche and ciabatta bread.
“We can’t come here and not order pizza,” he pointed out. And so, valiantly, he choose Pizza Nine – a tomato, mozzarella and local sausage meat pizza with additional caramelised onion. It was exquisite. Sausages in Ludlow are so good that they’ve been running annual competitions for 20 years to celebrate their savoury brilliance. His pizza made the most of local bangers, pairing them with a sweet onion topping that cut through their powerful flavour. The pizza was light, the cheese delicious – it was a win:win dish.
My minted lamb and courgette balls were similarly good. The lamb had been lightly cooked so that it remained pink and delicious – the courgette simply improving upon the moistness of the dish. The tomato was piquant and sweet while the crème fraîche added a luxurious touch. In truth, my dose of Bad Bugs Inc suppressed my appetite to such an extent that Mr Popular ended up taking most of the dish home in the proverbial doggie bag – making sure he got what he wanted after all.
Our bill was perfectly reasonable and we both left with our impression of Pizza Ten having been further enhanced. A guy at the till started talking to Mr Popular as I paid. “They make the best pizzas in Ludlow,” he said.
His statement was accurate as far as it went. But it failed to comment on the bigger picture. For Pizza Ten doesn’t just make the best pizzas in Ludlow – it makes the best in Shropshire. For some time, its unquestionably been the county’s best. Nothing’s changed – it’s still the number one.