Every foodie worth their Maldon organic rock salt knows about Franco Manca. Over the past few years this Neapolitan-style pizzeria has acquired a cult following, its legend rippling virally across the capital like the culinary equivalent of a Banksy graffiti. Anyone who’s passed by Brixton’s market precinct on a Saturday will have seen the endless queue snaking all the way down Coldharbour Lane, and, after dismissing the possibility that it’s an impromptu iPhone5 release at an improbably placed new Apple store, may well have wondered just how good a £5 pizza can be to entice this legion of yummy mummies and hipsters.
Despite being named as one of London’s best Cheap Eats by Time Out back in 2008, Franco Manca (meaning “Frank’s not here” in Italian, in reference to the pizzeria, Frankie’s, which previously occupied the Brixton site) has retained an underground edge. Perhaps in part that’s down to the locations of its two restaurants, one way out west, albeit in suburban Chiswick, the other down the Victoria line in Brixton (a third is scheduled to open in Westfield this year); if there’d been a branch in Soho things would maybe be different and we’d all have been piling in for a guilty lunchtime feast for years.
Location was everything on the night I was supposed to be visiting. It’d been three days since rioting broke out in Tottenham and, after a day digesting the footage, staying in seemed like the sensible option. I sat obsessively refreshing my Twitter feed, hash tag London riots. “Eighty per cent of shops closed on Chiswick High Street,” someone tweets; “gangs of youths congregating near the tube station,” cries another. I call Frano Manca and am told they’re staying open. So, how much am I willing to risk for a slice of what’s allegedly London’s best pizza?
At 7.30pm, I’m sat in the small canteen-style dining room perusing a list of half a dozen pizzas numbered one to six printed on today’s paper menu. The Chiswick restaurant is a little more formal and far larger than its relative in SW9, it stays open into the evening and has more of a restaurant feel whereas the latter has just a couple of tables or benches and is pulled into the lively, laid-back ambience of the market.
What’s so special about the pizza at Franco Manca, then? Largely, the key is in the bases, which are made from slow-rising sourdough (a minimum of 20 hours) and baked in an immense, wood-burning ‘tufae’ brick oven specially imported from Naples. The traditional Italian recipe is from a 600 year-old sourdough starter thieved from a bakery in Ischia, so the legend goes.
I opt for a pizza with courgettes, basil, buffalo ricotta and Frano Lloyd organic pecorino while my friend has Gloucester old spot ham, mozzarella, buffalo ricotta and wild mushrooms on hers (priced at £6.50 and £6.85 respectively). The bases do indeed threaten to steal the show: while they are thin and light in the centre, at the edges they have puffed up into soft, floury mounds, crisp on the outside yet satisfyingly chewy. You can taste the subtle sourdough tang.
Not to be outdone, the ingredients used for the toppings are rather spectacular too, all with their own back stories of artisan production and sustainable, wholesome credentials. The mozzarella comes from an organic farm in Somerset, to which the restaurant originally had expert Italian cheese maker Albino Scalzitti flown over from Sorrento to consult on producing the best from their water buffalo herds. They purchased a finca in Spain to supply the olives and olive oil. The ham is from a single farmer of Gloucester old spots, and the sweet tomatoes are hand-picked in Salerno during July and August only.
The approach at Franco Manca is to do a handful of things – typically just half a dozen pizzas plus a couple of options for antipasti and dessert on each day’s menu – but do them really well.
My Parmigiana starter, meanwhile, proves they can do more than just the doughy stuff. Those fine, melt-in-the-mouth slivers of aubergine bubbling away in a ramekin slathered in rich, sweet tomato sauce and topped with a burnished layer of molten mozzarella, was a sublime dish which reminded me just how comfortingly wonderful simple old-fashioned Italian cooking can be. Similarly, the raspberry polenta tart reworked the ubiquitous cheesecake, offering something winningly unique and far less cloying, thanks to the fresh tanginess of its yogurt topping and the grainy texture of a polenta base.
It may have sounded foolish to risk the riots and venture to the end of the District Line for what’s essentially a disc of dough covered in tomato and cheese; however, Franco Manca has elevated straightforward, rustic cuisine into something for which I was prepared to battle past a few plasma TV wielding hoodies.
We all know there are miles between a Dominos Hawaiian and the bewitching confections of tomato and mozzarella fired out in the ovens of southern Italy. But you really don’t have to go that far for something worthy of the best Neapolitan eateries. Franco Manca is a no-frills, wine in tumblers, paper menu sort of venue, but it’s all about those two huge ovens and the delicious, feel good ingredients flipped into them. Bellisimo!
Franco Manca, 144 Chiswick High Road, London W4 1PU. Tel: 020 8747 4822. Website.