Like mamma used to make: Pizza Pilgrims is proving a word-of mouth sensation
Forget stuffed crusts and bad-taste toppings, says Will Dean.
"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 one of the stallholders' spots 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 snatty 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 they had managed to drum up 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 a dextrous engineering graduate called Matt and the logo (featuring a slightly incongruous 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 "pizzeria" 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.
Portable pizza pedlars
Dorset (moves between Bridport, Maiden Newton, Dorchester and Beaminster (each from 4-9pm, call 0794 182023 for details)
Jalopy comes in the form of a quirky Peugeot J7 manned by two Aussie chefs. "We hand-make the dough in our own kitchen and the tomato sauce is made in small batches to an ancient Italian recipe," says owner Katherine Locke. Their "pizza a taglio" is sold by the rectangle and served straight from an authentic Ephrem wood-fired oven.
Bull Hotel, 13 Custom House Quay, Weymouth, Dorset; 01305 789389
The Quay in Weymouth offers pizzas from the back of a stable. The open kitchen offers stone-baked oven pizzas with Dorset's finest ingredients and a huge selection of ciders to go with it. With support from local farmers, they've got pizzas like "The Denhay Delight" with smoked Denhay Farm bacon and local field mushrooms.
The Well Kneaded Pizza Wagon (Firebread Pizza)
Various locations in London. Twitter @WellKneadedFood
Touring about in their Citroen van, The Well Kneaded Wagon has a cult following of foodies. Their "Firebread" pizzas are baked in a clay wood-fired oven in the back of a van and they have three parts to their menu: Standard, Fresh and Fiery. With an ever-changing combination of fresh ingredients, the real secret is the base: a two-minute cooked sourdough with a sweet chew to the initial crunch.
Various locations in London. Twitter @homesliceLDN
David Rowe, Ry Jessup and George Whiting are the men behind Homeslice Pizza. Putting their market skills and Neapolitan pizza training into their street food, the pizzas are freshly made in the wood fire on wheels. Rotating the pizza toppings, they always use fresh ingredients and always offer a simple classic: the Neapolitan margherita.
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