Most pizzerias desire second glances from diners. Most pizzerias do not achieve it. Most pizzerias aren’t Pizza Express.
If you think about it, a pizza is a fairly complex meal that therefore has many areas of possible brilliance as well as an equal number of areas for possible failure. The base must be thin, with just the right amount of leavened resilience making it flexible at all points away from the crust, which itself must be crisp; the tomato sauce, if used, should be slowly and well cooked, a process if followed, that clearly reflects in its taste; finally the toppings must complement and contrast – two or more toppings that bring the same cards to the table don’t really do much besides clutter a pizza. We therefore have dough, sauce and toppings as the three things to watch out for when making or eating a pizza. While the first two are mostly set when the recipe is perfect, the last, the toppings, offers endless combinations towards the achievement of objectives such as meatiness, crispiness, crunch, extravagance, luxury, indulgence, health and so on.
Most pizzerias in Delhi are now disappointing. Amici did serve nice pizzas at one point though alas; success appears to go hand in hand with apathy and Amici’s pizzas too are now exceedingly run of the mill along with every other attribute I admired about this restaurant. This didn’t leave many in the running, until I learnt about Pizza Express, a brand that was lodged someplace in the boot of my memories and needed quite a bit of jostling to retrieve. I was at first reluctant to visit, expecting the same marketing spiel, the same pizzas with the same politically correct toppings accompanied by perhaps a new jig by team members at the venue in a tired effort to be different.
I was in for a brilliant surprise!
The interiors at Pizza Express, Vasant Kunj while featuring an open kitchen, don’t offer much by way of differentiation. Where this restaurant starts being different is alcohol service that includes hard alcohol alongside wines and beers – something for everyone. The next is predictably, the food. We started with Dough Balls “PizzaExpress” (INR 165); incredibly light balls of bread, baked to a mildly chewy crust and served with your choice of garlic butter, Genoese pesto (green) or Pesto Rosso (Sicilian). It seems somewhat out of place to wax eloquence for food in a place that ends its name with ‘Express’; I will nonetheless do so. The structure of bread is easy to understand from a diner’s perspective. We have flour, yeast and gluten. The flour forms the body of the bread, the yeast leavens and the gluten brings strength and resilience to the mix, giving the pillars of flour (formed due to the holes left by the yeast) the strength to stand up on their own and support the bread. Now, while that is easily visualised, the issue is one of proportions. How much flour to how much yeast to how much gluten? Add to this the dimensions of ambient temperature while proofing, oven temperature while baking and the time taken for each of those two stages and you’ll start realising the complexity of the equation. Further throw into the fray the time, type and intensity of kneading, which effects the final dough and you will be left in no doubt of the very complex nature of bread production. I therefore say to you, please eat those dough balls with reverence. They may be one of the cheaper items on the menu and may even be a matter of process for team members. They do however represent a fair bit of knowledge and research. Keep that in mind when you pick up one and find it to be nearly weightless, despite its size; when you bite into one and find it collapsing under the mild pressure of your teeth, and when you slather a hot one with butter and think it to be the best bread you’ve ever eaten.
The two other starters we did were Rosemary Pizza Bread (INR 250) and Polpette (INR 310). While the former was a measure of rolled out dough, topped with rosemary, garlic and chili flakes, baked and then drizzled with extra virgin olive oil, the latter represented yet another epiphany – chicken meatballs in a chicken bolognese sauce. Polpette, Italian for meatballs, are traditionally made with beef or veal, and rightly so; chicken would normally result in a dry, unyielding sphere that would not be as appetising. Interestingly, Polpette doesn’t appear to feature in Pizza Express London’s menu, but it does show up in Kuwait, as beef. Considering it doesn’t show up much elsewhere, I can only assume the chicken version of Polpettes were created for India and I believe they’ve done a fine job. The meatballs were sufficiently delimited for texture, quite moist inside as well as yielding and soft, which in my opinion describes the perfect meatball. Drenched in a flavorful chicken bolognese sauce, this dish was an illustration of what the right use of fat can do for a dish – there was none visible and yet it made its presence felt where it counted. I suggest ordering the bread and the meatballs together.
And then came the pizzas,
Marching through the aisles
Lighting up our table
With a million smiles
So, that was a bit cheesy (pun intended), but you have to understand my happiness at seeing politically incorrect pizzas with toppings I hadn’t seen before. Experiments in the commercial sector with regular menus are far and few in between and the only time establishments choose to experiment with the staid appetites of Delhi is with temporary menus. So it isn’t that the professional community isn’t capable. They’re more than so. It’s us diners who turn up our noses at innovation. Our pizzas were a Calabrese (INR 750) and a Padana (INR 595). The Padana wasn’t for me and I don’t think I’d order it again. It was however quite an innovative combination of toppings – caramelised onions (almost a jam) with goat’s cheese, spinach, red onions and mozzarella, the whole drizzled with garlic oil. Perhaps it’ll work for you. The Calabrese on the other hand was pure music. It was very hot (finely chopped red chilies), very meaty (chunks of Italian sausage and spicy sausage), sour & spicy (pickled jalapenos), creamy (baby mozzarella), crisp (rocket), flavorful (pesto) and crunchy (bell peppers). What more could I have asked for?
You must visit Pizza Express, with your family, friends and co-workers, order as much of the menu as you can and experience as many of their dishes as possible. I don’t know what they’ll be like in 6 months. Right now, they’re brilliant.