Just like Mamma used to make

Forget stuffed crusts and bad-taste toppings. A van dispensing purist pizzas is proving a word-of-mouth sensation. Will Dean takes a slice

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The Independent Online

"This is my new toy," laughs James Elliot as he points a laser gun into the back of a van. It's no ordinary van, though. The dark-green Piaggio Ape parked in a stallholders' spot in Soho's Berwick Street market is one-of-a-kind. In the back, rather than the shabby tools of a Roman handyman, it has a custom-built pizza oven in which James, his brother Thom and their colleague Louis Lillywhite cook the best pizzas in Soho.

The laser gun tells James that their oven – which is today powered by gas, but can also use wood – is up past 400 degrees and ready to be fed.

Before it became a portable pizza oven, the Ape was used by the Elliots to drive around Italy learning about how to make the perfect Neapolitan pizza and which ingredients make a pizza authentic. The knowledge they built up from visits to restaurants, such as the legendary Pizzeria Da Michele, in Naples, has subsequently been brought back to Blighty and used for the launch of the brothers' first food venture, Pizza Pilgrims, which encompasses the set-up at Berwick Street and occasional 34mph jaunts to festivals and events in pubs.

After battling through the dingiest two months of spring in recent memory, the Pilgrims are now fully embedded in Soho. Their van lives in an office car park, their prep takes place in the cellar of the local Endurance pub and their fresh rocket and vegetables come from the friendly ("they call us The Apprentice") veg stall traders next door.

Having spoken to Thom about the prevalence of bastardised pizza creations (in which a hot-dog-embedded-crust number scorched the last straw for pizza traditionalists) for a previous article, the Pilgrims were keen to invite me down to show off their own pizzas and tell me about their adventure. Oh, and for me to muck in, front of house. Which, after Thom offered me a natty red apron and a slice of oven-fresh marinara, I was more than keen to accept.

A year ago, Thom was working in advertising and marketing and was keen to do something different. He and his younger brother had come up with the idea for a pizza quest/business one night in the pub and had got to the point where they'd told so many people that they were going to do it, that they were left with little choice but to put their sourdough where their mouths were.

They left their jobs, and thanks to contacts and some good luck, by the time they left for Italy there was interest in a book and a TV show about their travels. "We'd planned the bare bones already," Thom explains as the wind blows the canopy of their stall around. "There were 11 or 12 places we wanted to go," he says. But there's only so much pilgrimage one can make unaided – after all, why on earth would Italy's top pizza chefs want to share their secrets with two young Brits? "Once you've got the promise of TV behind you, people who wouldn't have picked up the phone to you say 'OK'," explains Thom. "The great thing about the camera was that it got us into places like Da Michele."

When they returned, the Ape was customised as a pizza oven by an engineering graduate called Matt and the logo (featuring a rolling pin – "My girlfriend designed it before we realised they don't use rolling pins in Naples," explains Thom) was added to the van's side. At this point Louis, stuck in a dull telesales job, joined the team. They've been rolling for a couple of months now and are beginning to pick up a reputation as some of the best non-Italian pizza-makers in town.

On the stall, business is starting to rev up as the Soho lunch crowd begin to pop by. Most Neapolitan pizza places strictly serve only Margherita and marinara pizzas. The Pilgrims are fundamental in their choice of base ingredients but are willing to experiment a bit more with toppings. Today they're offering Margherita, but also courgette (supplied from the veg stall) and 'Nduja, the spicy Calabrian sausage meat. The latter is magnificent, the oily flesh nearly melts into the base and adds a real zip. Naples doesn't know what it's missing.

 

But what Naples does know, unsurprisingly, is how to make the rest of the pizza. The Pizza Pilgrims used their experience in Italy to choose their three key ingredients. The first, and most important, is the flour. They use Caputo "00" flour, which is milled in Italy, but uses grains from around the world. The high gluten content adds the stretchy property that allows the bases to be pulled into shape by hand. The cheese is fior de latte – cow's milk mozzarella from Latteria Sorrentina – and the sauce is from San Marzano plum tomatoes from Campania.

The end result is a near-authentic (their use of toppings led them to change their slogan from "Authentic Neapolitan" to "Napoli-inspired") pizza pie. It's delicious too. And, if my word isn't enough, then the almost-comical amount of Italians who stop by the stall during my four hours working on it is testament to their success. Most demanding of the bunch is a Naples native called Maurizio who arrives at around 2pm with his wife. The pair are impressed by the van and, before ordering a pizza to take home to their kids, insist on trying James's raw (!) dough and a little bit of uncooked sauce. "Buonissimo!" declares Maurizio, which, from a fussy Neapolitan, is about as high as praise gets.

Pizza Pilgrims may be beginning to thrive as a street food stall, but with a possible book and TV show on the way (their pilot is currently being shopped around the networks), it's not unlikely that the boys could outgrow their windswept spot and follow other London food truck successes like Pitt Cue Co and Meatwagon into the confines of four-walls. Thom is honest enough to admit that truck life may not be forever: "It's such early days," he says as we celebrate a decent day's trade with a few slices of 'Nduja, "you certainly lose a bit of the charm."

That's especially true if they have to jettison the Ape, which adds a certain romanticismo to the entire venture. But what London lacks more than any other fast food innovation is a raft of decent pizza slice places. Something the Pilgrims would be keen to address: "We'd love to have – what we're thinking about," says Thom, "in Napoli, they have these cool takeaway shops. A big oven at one end, all very simple, you can have a beer there, there's five or six seats. But it's not a restaurant."

"It's like New York pizza slice culture, we want to have that," adds James.

If the queues to get into the rest of Soho's unbookable restaurants (Polpo, Spuntino et al) are any clue, there are thousands of Londoners who probably wouldn't mind the same thing.

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