The British love of pizza is as deep and warm as a classic Hawaiian. But the chain that put pineapple on our stuffed-crust 11in is in trouble. Pizza Hut has been plunged into crisis mode over its mounting debt pile, citing “unprecedented and sustained inflation of energy, food and transportation costs” that have eaten into its profits.
Within weeks of its auditors’ warning, the very best pizza in the world was named – made in, of all places, Chiswick. Those who live close to Napoli on the Road in West London, which also has a branch in Richmond, can now claim to have the “global pizza-maker of the year” on their doorstep, after its owner, Michele Pascarella, was crowned by the prestigious 50 Top Pizza awards. His sourdough bases, with their high, airy crusts, come topped with everything from courgette cream and smoked mozzarella to beef tartare. Lucky locals.
Along with Waitrose stores and independent coffee shops, the density of sourdough pizza restaurants in any given area has become one the most reliable markers of gentrification in the UK. But it wasn’t always so: Domino’s, Pizza Hut and Pizza Express top the list of pizzerias in terms of brand recognition, according to Statista.
The big chains have dominated our high streets since Pizza Express first opened on Wardour Street in London in the 1960s, with dine-in restaurants, takeaways and more recently cook-at-home supermarket ranges to keep us replete in molten mozzarella. The news that Pizza Hut UK faces an uncertain future will have struck fear into the hearts of all students currently surviving on stuffed crusts with a side of cheesy garlic bread.
A history of pizza in Britain
The first pizza sold in Britain is thought to have been at the Olivelli in London’s Bloomsbury – a margherita, which by some measures remains the nation’s favourite, though it tussles for the top position with a classic pepperoni. But it was in Soho in 1965 that pizza really became sexy.
The nation’s first Pizza Express came about thanks to a Cambridge graduate called Peter Boizot, who dragged a pizza oven over from Naples, employed a Sicilian to knead dough in full view of customers, and served it on greaseproof paper through the window.
But Pizza Express did not only sell pizza; it sold accessible aspiration – membership to a cool cosmopolitan club for the price of a dish of dough balls. As it spread across the UK, the middle classes wolfed it down.
A whole generation was raised in their local branch, marking all major landmarks (10th birthdays, exam results, first dates) at their marble tables to a soundtrack of light jazz and with a supporting cast of waiters in stripy T-shirts. “I grew up with a local Pizza Express in East Sheen,” says Johnnie Tate, the co-founder of Yard Sale Pizza, a cult mini chain of London pizza joints.
“So many family meals and birthdays happened there when I was a kid that I can still remember the smell of oregano,” he says. “And those exposed brick walls – that design even influenced the basement restaurant of our shop on Hackney Road.”
The big US import
Wannabes soon popped up on high streets across Britain. Ask Italian opened in 1993 before ultimately merging with Pizza Express; Zizzi launched in 1999. But meanwhile a rival model of pizza-peddling was emerging, one that capitalised not only on pizza’s ability to evoke la dolce vita, but on its potential to feed the masses cheaply, and cheerfully. It came, of course, from the United States.
Pizza Hut arrived in the UK in 1973 and by the mid-1980s was opening an average of one restaurant every week. It gave us the pan pizza in 1980, the stuffed crust in 1995, limitless trips to the salad station in 2012, and (a high or low point, depending on your perspective) the cheeseburger pizza in 2013 (2,880 calories, with mini-burgers in the crust).
Domino’s followed it across the Atlantic, landing in Luton in 1985 and soon becoming the first home-delivery business to float on the London Stock Exchange’s AIM market. Papa John’s pizza delivery chain arrived in 1999 and for a while we enjoyed one of the great culture wars, on a par with Blur v Oasis: was your pizza thin-crust or deep-pan?
Was it accompanied by a Peroni (Pizza Express was the first to bring it to Britain) or bottomless soft drinks (pioneered by Pizza Hut)? Followed by a single scoop of gelato or a trip to the ice-cream factory? World leaders clashed over the incendiary issue of pineapple as a topping. One picked a team and never crossed sides.
The rise of sourdough
So when exactly did the battlefront begin to shift? Arguably in 2015, when a small neighbourhood sourdough pizza joint called Franco Manca was bought by Fulham Shore (owner of the Real Greek), which started to roll the brand out nationwide.
By the arrival of coronavirus lockdowns in 2020, pizza aficionados were asking a whole new question: is your dough made using yeast or a starter culture?
In April 2020, UK Google searches for “sourdough pizza” increased by 769 per cent. For those desperate to carve some sort of self-improvement from self-isolation during the pandemic, posh pizza was less food, more life-raft. In difficult times, however, our desire for affordable, soft slices of comforting carbs rises too. Customers ordered almost 20 per cent more Domino’s pizzas during lockdown, while Pizza Hut Delivery announced a recruitment spree in response to surging demand.
There have been casualties along the way. As well as Pizza Hut’s recent woes, in April, Prezzo announced the closure of nearly one-third of its restaurants, citing the soaring cost of ingredients – up 28 per cent for pizza sauce, for example.
But some pizzerias are thriving. Tate started selling pizzas in 2014 from his garden in East London; Yard Sale delivered its two-millionth pizza earlier this year, and is experiencing record sales. Its 11th restaurant will open this November, with more following next year. Pizza Pilgrims, which began life in a three-wheeled Piaggio Ape van, now has 25 sites across the UK and recently reported an 80 per cent jump in sales. Franco Manca was bought by Japanese restaurant group Toridoll earlier this year and looks set to expand internationally.
What do they all have in common? “The quality of the pizza is a huge factor, which has come a long way in the last 10 years,” says Tate. Yard Sale sources its mozzarella directly from Campania, Italy. Franco Manca claims its sourdough starter was stolen from a bakery on Ischia and dates back to the 1730s. The big high street chains may now lag behind the evolved palates of the modern consumer.
If you are a fully paid-up member of the socially responsible middle classes, your pizza now makes a subtle political statement on your behalf. Just as Amazon Prime deliveries and fast fashion are out, so is “fast pizza”. Sourdough, by its nature, takes time. Yard Sale undertakes a 24-hour dough fermentation and a maturation process that can take up to 72 hours. Pizza Pilgrims serves “slow-proved Neapolitan pizza”, while Napoli on the Road prepares its flour blend with a starter, as you might a sourdough.
These days, just as you should really be baking your own sourdough or at least buying it from a “small batch” or “microbakery”, so too your pizza restaurant of choice should be an independent. In fact, if you are really serious about provenance, your pizza should be so local that you’re not even stepping out of the house.
Witness the phenomenal rise of Ooni. The Scottish home pizza-oven company, launched on Kickstarter in 2012, had a £208 million turnover last year and, if it is not already there – artfully yet conspicuously placed – is currently heading to a garden near you...
What’s your pizza of choice? Vote for your order and tell us in the comments below...