Buoyed by the news of Franco Manca opening a branch in Belsize Park soon, we felt we should go and visit our current nearest one (at the top of Tottenham Court Road) to refresh our memories of their sourdough slices of heaven. Since discovering the original Brixton branch about eight years ago, I've been a big fan of Franco Manca. It sounds odd, but having queued for half an hour in chilly Brixton market (they bring out freshly baked foccacia to keep you going) and then sat down to be jostled by fairly crazy waiters passing giant hot plates over your head, these unique pizzas of authentic Neapolitan flavours washed down with madly cheap tumblers of organic wine can hold a special place in one's heart. Since then, pretenders to the throne L'Antica and Pizza Pilgrims have jostled for position in my affections, so I was keen to see if Franco Manca was as good as remembered.
They still have the irritating no booking policy, but thanks in a way to the fact that there are now billions of branches (ok, ten but five more planned for 2015), we were able to casually stroll in at 1.30pm on a Saturday and be seated straight away - and we had a buggy. Prosecco ordered (£19/bottle) and burrata sharer at the ready, standard, we got stuck in. Not much to report on the burrata; it was pleasingly creamy and came with some nicely dressed bits and pieces.
There are now more pizzas to choose from than I remember. There were six standard ones on the menu, two specials and endless extra toppings available. I went for the meat special, which was a bianca with wild pig cappocollo (like proscuitto but no brining process), parmesan, mozzarella, watercress and potato. You can see in the title picture that it was truly excellent and was so nice to see potato on a pizza for a change - you will always see potato pizza in Italy, but its rare to see on a menu here I think. Much is made of the sourdough base and the cooking process at Franco Manca and it is true that the bases here are really the superstars of the pizza base world. They say: "The slow levitation and blast-cooking process lock in the flour's natural aroma and moisture giving a soft, easily digestible crust. As a result, the edge (cornicione) is excellent and shouldn't be discarded." Sure, and very commendable it is too, but should there be more crust than actual pizza? I don't think so, and that is definitely the case with the number three (bianca, wild broccoli, fancy sausage) we got below:
Whilst the ingredients were as top notch as ever, we couldn't help feeling a tad shortchanged, particularly as it was a bianca. Chilli oil went towards remedying the situation.
The number four, a ham, mushroom and ricotta number, was by all accounts a deeply satisfying carb hit but again, she found herself overwhelmed by the crust despite faring a bit better with the ratio of base to topping:
Still, for under £7 a pizza these truly are extraordinary value and definitely among the best you will have in London (any objections, send me your suggestions). The newer branches lack the buzz and authenticity of the Brixton market atmosphere, and this in turn affects your enjoyment I think. However, the staff cannot do enough for you and it does still maintain a very Neapolitan feel in terms of the informality and being forced to get pretty up close and personal with the table next to you. You should still go, but get to the Brixton one if at all possible. I'm sure we'll be at the Belsize one with embarrassing regularity when it arrives in March.
Until then, on another pizza note, tomorrow I'm going to be sampling six of L'Antica's best at this Pizza Tuesday event and I can't wait to report back.