My only job in catering, if you can call it that, was during the school holidays in Edinburgh, at a deliveries-only Pizza Hut. I took the orders over the phone, folded the boxes, foil-bagged the Ben & Jerry’s and the Irn-Bru. I sliced at the ‘cut table’ with a huge mezzaluna, and I slid the pizzas into cardboard. I made them, too – or at least, I assembled them. This was a curious operation. We removed thin, frozen pizza slabs from plastic wrapping. We splashed a pre-set quantity of fat into the deep dishes, dropped the cold discs in, and sprayed them heavily with chemicals from a mysterious and unidentified canister. Overnight, they defrosted, and swelled like boils into the pans, their dough as wet and pale as drowned corpse. Then we smeared them with tomato and cheese, and scattered them with toppings: rabbit-droppings of beef and pork (distinguished by different shades of brown), dry, raw chunks of green pepper, uniform slivers of salami, and stinking slugs of anchovy. ‘We eat the mistakes,’ the manager told me on my first day. He meant it as an incentive. I took it as a threat.
Franco Manca is nothing like Pizza Hut. It’s nothing like Pizza Express or Strada, either – those serviceable, clean and still very modern chains, each as blandly uncontroversial as an episode of Friends. Franco Manca is loud, brash and uncomfortable. It serves the worst white wine I’ve ever drunk, a lukewarm blend of bat piss and great-aunt's sherry. The salad, which has a little chopped fennel, is actively boring. The much-trumpeted home-made lemonade is rather sickly, to my taste, although it’s cheap at a quid a bottle. The menu is as brief as a pair of Y-fronts.
But it makes the best pizza in the country.
It’s buried in Brixton Market, between plastic and plantains. An old Nigerian man wanders around outside yelling passages from the bible. As you queue – and you will queue – they take your order, and as soon as you sit down, the pizzas arrive. The wood-fired oven roars at 500 degrees, and the dough needs just 40 seconds to form a glorious speckled char, like leopardskin, for the cheese to bubble across the surface, for the tomato to roast until only its sweet, sunny essence, its deep red colour, are left.
I went with Kang, who runs one of the best-looking food blogs of all, London Eater. He recently hosted a competition on his site, which I won, and I suggested we put the prize towards lunch. Next on my list of places was Franco Manca, so that’s where we went. I told him where it was, adding: ‘You know, Kang, you’ll have to answer to the puns of Brixton.’
And I spent all week looking forward to it. Pizza is all about promise. It’s a treat biked to the door, in grease-doused cardboard, piping cheesy steam from corrugated port-holes. For kids, it means a fun day out – Saturday lunch in a bright room, dough balls and an American Hot. And even more, written in the history of pizza, almost in its soul, is a bigger and more powerful promise: the hope and expectation of a better life. The pizza we eat today is an actively, greedily mercantile mating of Old World and New. The ur-pizzas, proto-pizzas, those combinations of flour, leaven and salt, eaten across the northern coast of the Med - they were taken west (arguably to Lombardi’s in Manhattan, where I've eaten fine specimens), and commercialised, franchised and supersized, crust-stuffed, deep-dished, ham-and-pineappled, topped with caviar and smoked salmon, or hoi sin and shredded duck. Pizza is now the most globalised food of all. In it is everything you need to know about the motives and movement of people around Europe, America, and everywhere else. Kim Jong-Il loves it, for God's sake.
For anyone of my generation, we can measure out our lives in the pizzas we’ve eaten. When I was ten years old, the universe offered no bigger treat than a Meat Feast on a Saturday night. When my parents divorced, and it was six years before we ate together again as a cracked, estranged family, that first meal was in Pizza Express. In the Oxford branch, in the oldest covered market in England, I ate more pizzas than I care to remember – always wine-fuelled and roaring, and never for much more than 20 quid. There, too, one Thursday, I got a stay of execution for a doomed relationship. And since I began working in London, the Strada at St Paul’s has probably fed me more lunches than anywhere else. Franco Manca makes better pizza than all of these places. It's a new benchmark. From now on, when I want pizza, and I'm able to go, I will. (It follows market hours, and only opens for lunch Monday to Saturday.)
The thing is, I could tell you about the 20 hours they leave the sourdough to rise. Or how the dough was started in the 1730s. I could talk about the surgical attention to sourcing – meat from Brindisa, coffee from Monmouth, olives from Spain because the owner, Giuseppe Mascoli, thinks they're better than Italian ones. I could mention the cheesemaker he flew to England to teach Somerset buffalo farmers how to make the milkiest, silkiest mozzarella. I could add that the oven is the only one of its kind in the country, and was shipped here from Naples. But it's all extraneous. Go there, and eat, and you won't care. It's too bloody good.
Franco Manca, 4 Market Row, Electric Lane, Brixton, London, SW9
Tel. +44 (0)20 7738 3021
See on the TFYS Map
Lunch for two, including drinks and service, costs £20. That's all.