All my life I've had one friend who I knew would never let me down. Reliable, honest, charismatic, always willing to listen, completely selfless, he gave and gave and gave and never asked for anything in return. He answered most poetically that unbeatable definition of friendship from Richard Ford's The Sportswriter, a quote I've been known to use in best-man speeches, from a novel so compelling it changed me forever. "What's friendship's realest measure?" asks Frank Bascombe, the divorcee of the title. "I'll tell you. The amount of precious time you'll squander on someone else's calamities."
Has ever the word "squander" been put to better use? Of course not, and this friend of mine squandered countless hours, years even, on my calamities. He even, as all best friends do, evolved as I evolved, matured as I matured, adapting to my changing circumstances by adapting his own.
I'm talking about pizza. All my life, pizza has been there. To support, satisfy, excite, replenish and restore. Of how many friends can that really be said? Pizza squandered time on me. And as I grew, so did he.
In my teenage years, I was fat and spicy, so I devoured those Chicago Town frozen pizzas you used to get from Iceland and Sainsbury's. Out of the freezer, silver cardboard stand at the ready, perforated corners flicked up for support, four-and-a-half minutes in the microwave and BOOM! I must have sunk about 2,000.
In my twenties, I felt poor: cash-poor and time-poor (I wasn't, of course, just vain), so I'd get a Sainsbury's or Co-op own-brand double-pepperoni number from the shop on my way home. Out of the pack, into the oven, gas mark 7, 12 minutes flat, and BOOM: an avalanche of white carbs and glistening mozzarella.
Now I'm in my thirties, I'm thinner, less skint, married and a restaurant critic. I have a taste for the finer things in life. And I have found a pizzeria, on the New King's Road in Fulham, which defines where I'm at today. The pizza I want now is Neapolitan. That means: thin, classy crust; light smattering of tomato sauce rather than lashings; purpose-built stone oven; a very particular flour known as 00 (Italians grade flour by colour; the English grade it by both colour and gluten content; so 00 just means very white); and exceptionally high standard of ingredient.
Luca La Gatta, who looks a bit like the Italian footballer Andrea Pirlo, came here in 1997 without a word of English to wash dishes in a Pizza Express, before working in Via Caracciolo in Clapham. He has just opened this place, combining the above like an alchemist, to produce the best pizzas I've had in years. Even my Italian mate Orazio and his very discerning wife Zahra love it, and they have high standards.
The antipasti are all fabulous. There's parmegiana bianca di melanzane (aubergine, smoked mozzarella, cooked ham and pecorino cheese, £5.95); straccetti (deep-fried dough with rocket salad, cherry tomatoes and pecorino, £5.95); and affettati misti (cold cuts, served with deep-fried dough, £8.95).
The pizzas are equally flawless, coming on a crisp, charcoal-infused base. We have a Diavola (salami, chilli, pecorino, basil, £11.95); deep-fried calzone con scarola (smoked mozzarella, pine nuts, black olives, anchovies and a sweet escarole salad, escarole being a less-bitter kind of endive, £10.95); a regular calzone (£12.95); and a Bufala (buffalo mozzarella, pecorino, tomato confit, £10.95). Did you notice I said deep-fried? There are five such options, starting at £6.95. It makes the calzone a kind of fried pizza sandwich, lightly browned on the outside, crisp rather than claggy. Very Neopolitan.
It's not dirt cheap, but then this isn't dirt. The wine list is very reasonable, too. But what makes this a 9½ place rather than a 9 is a deconstructed tiramisu that has Dessert of the Year 2015 all over it. Mascarpone, espresso, sponge fingers and chocolate powder, each separate. Just unbeatable. Some would say you want the fingers to be soggy. In which case, pour the coffee on it, sit back, relax, and have a Nutella-covered pizza (£6.95), the taste of holidays in Europe, while you wait.
I've run out of space. Except to tell you this could be the best pizzeria in London right now – and a friend for life.
La Gatta Pizzeria, 311 New King's Road, London SW6, Tel: 020 3105 1699, £55 for two, with wine
Four more foodie notes from the past week (New York special)
Momofuku pork bun
Four more this week comes from my travels in New York, starting with this absurdly moreish sloppy pork explosion.
Liver with fried polenta
If you're in the Big Apple with money on your hands, this classic is as generous in size as it is dear at notoriously expensive Cipriani.
The Waverley Inn, one of my favourite restaurants in the world, does this so well, with black truffle, arugula and Parmesan.
Brazil's national cocktail comes with a guaranteed hangover. But, oh, what a pick-me-up.
- More about:
- La Gatta Pizzeria
- New York
- Richard Ford
- Frank Bascombe
- Luca La Gatta