125 Stoke Newington Church St, London N16 0UH; 020 7687 0009
Pizza and wine for two: £40
Da Michele is a small but celebrated pizzeria in Naples, the city where the world’s favourite cheese-and-bread based foodstuff is generally said to have originated – though the first recorded use of the word “pizza” is in a medieval contract listing tithes to the bishop of Gaeta, if you’re interested. Julia Roberts goes to Da Michele in Eat Pray Love – presumably the “Eat” part – though among storied Neapolitan pizzerias it’s unusual in not being decorated with the faintly sinister logo of the city’s pizza quango, the AVPN or Associazione della vera pizza napolitana, a pizza-toting Pulcinella.
As it happens I worked regularly in Naples for many years. I never went to Da Michele, though I often ate at Di Matteo nearby, where they have pictures of various stellar individuals (Bill Clinton, Sylvester Stallone, Mother Teresa, Geoff Capes etc) tucking into a margherita; I also patronised the slightly more upscale Starita a Materdei on the other side of town, where the forchettone or “big little fork” wielded by Sophia Loren in Vittorio De Sica’s 1954 neorealist classic L’Oro di Napoli hangs on the wall like a holy relic.
Across the bay there was Pizza a metro da Gigino in Vico Equense, aka The University of Pizza, a large and lugubrious joint with the faint flavour of a Soviet gymnasts’ canteen about it, where a conveyor belt running through the oven allows them to serve pizza by the metre; not to mention a rough-around-the-edges place, whose name escapes me, just outside the ruins at Herculaneum, where I’d take my tourists after exploring the site, dusty and hungry, and often cop a freebie in exchange for the trade I was bringing in.
The problem I have with achieving any sort of proper critical perspective on pizza is that I really like pizza. Last week I had a stuffed-crust double pepperoni pizza from the Co-op, and I even quite liked that. It just seems like one of those bits of elementary alchemy: of course it’s not true that you can’t go wrong – but even when you’re wrong, you’re somehow still right. So I greeted the news that Da Michele was setting up shop in London with mixed feelings. On the plus side: pizza. On the down side: the need to knuckle down and think reasonably objectively about pizza. I did find it strange that they’d chosen a site near a good, Neapolitan-style pizzeria, Apollo, and not far from a trendy US-style pizzeria, Voodoo Ray’s. But they’ve been packed since opening, after a certain amount of faffing about, in February.
They use Qudini, like a lot of no-bookings places; you give them your number then hie thee to the pub and try and focus on your friends for a while, rather than obsessively monitoring the slow tick-tock of numbers on your phone. We gained admission around 9.30pm. Plenty of hustle and bustle; a bit of bare brick alternating with crisp white walls; some quotations from the book of Eat Pray Love; a grinning likeness of Michele himself, who set up the mothership in 1870; and, in the back, the great oven (not unlike the ones they’ll have used at Herculaneum). Most of the staff, and maybe 60 per cent of the diners, were Italian.
The menu is an object lesson in concision: no extra toppings, no salad, no puddings, no saucy little slug of limoncello afterwards.
The menu is an object lesson in concision. Two pizzas, a margherita and a marinara; some drinks. No extra toppings, no salad, no puddings, no saucy little slug of limoncello afterwards. It’s rumoured that they do some specials, but not today. We ordered one of each and a bottle of plummy, slightly musty aglianico; they brought some tap water, and we were away – in and out within about 40 minutes (though we never felt rushed or loomed over).
To serve only one dish but to do it surpassingly well is a noble goal, I think. To only like eating one dish is a bit babyish, of course (this is my only qualm about Elijah Quashie Dickson, aka The Chicken Connoisseur, a YouTube star who reviews fried chicken shops across London with remarkable wit, rigour and consistency) – but it’s not as if I’m going to have pizza again tonight, unless I’m home late and the Co-op is still open. Anyway, our pizzas were nigh-on perfect – as hot as Hades from the oven, pillowy soft, charred a little round the rim.
The margherita was made with fiordilatte, i.e. mozzarella made from cow’s rather than buffalo milk (this is one of the issues the AVPN have with Da Michele, apparently) – but then buffalo mozzarella doesn’t go stringy when you cook it. The marinara was a pizza rossa, served without cheese, just tomato, garlic, handfuls of dried oregano (the name is either a reference to the poverty of a fisherman, or a nod to the idea that a fisherman would tend to eat fish alongside or after his pizza, and the Italians don’t like cheese getting anywhere near fish) and, a little controversially, no anchovy. The tomato sauce in both cases was just excellent, sweet and tangy and evidently simmered at some length.
Was it good? Hell yes. Was it better than Pizza Pilgrims or Yard Sale, or the original Franco Manca? Certainly it had that air of hallowed authenticity, while also being somehow thrillingly delicious. What concerned us was that this incarnation of Da Michele looked as if it had been kitted out with some serious venture capital – as if it was a chain in the making. I’m not sure the vibe would be the same if you set one up in Bluewater or Heathrow Airport.