Food review: Pizza Express, Shrewsbury
Escaping the heat to an air conditioned restaurant was the plan of action. Andy Richardson cools off dining out on a supper of pizza. . .
The thermometer was reading 30C-plus. And so my friend and I did what all self-respecting diners do on a baking hot day – put our trotters up at a restaurant with air conditioning. Ahhh. Feel the cool blast. CO2 crisis, what crisis?
Not for us the traditional beer terrace: how do people manage pints of frothy stuff when it’s scorchio scorchio? Nor did we opt for a counter-intuitive table at a restaurant serving really hot curries: why is that a thing in summer? Nah. The menu de jour was Southern European as we wandered unbooked into a one of Shropshire’s busiest pizza joints.
Pizza Express remains one of the nation’s favourite pizza chains, having been founded by Peter Boizot on Wardour Street in 1965. Boizot wanted to keep it simple and that’s precisely what his chain has done during the past 50-plus years. Beautiful dough, a simple tomato sauce and mozzarella with various toppings, it’s a recipe that’s helped the chain’s owners open 500-plus restaurants and take on around 10,000 staff.
It’s a chain that says all the right things about provenance, from its gleeful elucidation about the origins of its passata to a joyful narrative about the harvesting and roasting of its coffee. In the health conscious 2010s, it is all things to all diners; offering gluten-free pizzas, vegan options and calorie-tested pizzas for those who want all the flavour but none of the postprandial pork.
So while some pizza chains offer a one-way ticket to ObesityVille, Pizza Express remains light on its feet and caters for the aspirational working class and affluent stuck-in-the-middles.
Service was good when my friend and I visited for our midweek supper. We were greeted at the door of the chain’s Mardol branch, in Shrewsbury, and invited to select our own table. Menus were proffered quickly and we selected our drinks. He chose a sensible, thirst-quenching ginger beer while I opted for the most absurdly titled drink in Christendom; a Sicilian, strawberry lemonade. I had visions of hard-working fruit pickers harvesting fresh, zesty lemons before picking plump Flavia strawberries from idyllic farms near Agrigento. Instead, I got an oversweetened glass full of ice with a swish of syrupy strawberry cordial and a strawberry plonked on top. You can buy more exotic fruit juices in Sainsbury’s. You can also, of course, buy Pizza Express pizzas from Sainsbury’s and it gradually dawned on us that we were, in fact, simply enjoying a supermarket supper without having to cook it. Lazy Bones, Lazy Bones.
We started with breaded calamari, which was pleasingly tender but came dressed in a breadcrumb coating that reminded me of eating fishfingers in the 1970s. The coating was a little squishy where the crumbs met the squid rings and the dip that came with it put the ‘over’ into over-powering. As impressive as the principles might have been for Pizza Express’s founding fathers, when chains become so gargantuan, it’s impossible to provide the sort of finesse or lightness of touch that you might find at independent outlets.
We opted for pizzas, naturally, for our mains. I opted for a leggera polla ad astra – a low-cal chicken pizza featuring peppadew peppers, tomato, Cajun sipces, garlic oil and red onion. It was advertised at being an under-600 calorie option; which is nice if you’re a fat man in a thin man’s body.
Winner winner chicken dinner, and all that. Stupidly, I imagined there’d be some culinary wizardry to pack all of those flavours onto a sub-600 pizza. And I was wrong. There were two pieces of peppadew pepper, scant onion and almost no cheese. To keep the calories low, the centre had been removed from the dish, so that it was more halo-than-pizza. It had been filled with a wan salad of sliced lettuce leaves and halved tomatoes, then drizzled in dressing. Wah. I’m not sure making pizzas in the shape of Friar Tuck’s hair is cricket. Hole punches belong in Rymans, not Pizza Express.
My friend was far smarter. He ordered a calabrese pizza, rectangular in shape, which was piled high with hot and soft nduja sausage, red chilli, roquito pepper, roasted peppers, mozzarella and tomato. The top had been garlanded with rocket, pesto and Gran Milano cheese. Nice. He rolled it up and made light work of it, while I wondered at the merits of my holy moley pizza.
A side of polenta chips were the highlight of the evening. They’d been infused with rosemary and finished with Gran Milano cheese, before being served with a honey and mustard dip. The cheese had melted on the crisp, golden exterior; the insides were light and fluffy and they provided a pleasing addition to our suppers.
Service was good throughout. The restaurant manager was prompt, courteous and efficient while a waitress was equally helpful; clearing away glasses and plates with vim and vigour. The pizzaiolos was hard-working, too, making sure orders for the reasonably full restaurant were met with decent speed. Her efforts didn’t go unnoticed.
And yet there was something unremarkable about dinner. We’d eaten Sainsbury’s food for people who can’t be bothered to walk into the kitchen and turn on the oven. The pizzas were all a bit bish, bash, bosh. The salad was underwhelming, the strawberry drink super sugary and the calamari not great.
Shropshire has a couple of really good pizzarias – and one of those is within walking distance in Shrewsbury.
Let’s not kid ourselves into thinking the indies care more about pizzas than the staff who work in chains – the woman behind the stove at Pizza Express worked like a Trojan.
But they do make better pizzas with tastier bases, more imaginative toppings, better sides and a cooler range of drinks. They’re unencumbered by the buying policies that come from above and have greater flexibility – from the tunes on the stereo to the seating plan and beyond.
Dinner at Pizza Express was more memorable for our conversations about Frank Skinner’s best jokes, mutual friends who can best be described as ‘characters’ – in truth, anything but the food.
The calabrese was decent and the polenta chips mighty fine, but the rest was supermarket fayre that didn’t really excite.