There’s been an awful lot of fuss made over a tiny no reservation pizza joint in Stoke Newington, an import from Naples and made internationally famous by Eat Pray Love, which was originally a book about a woman who runs off to Italy, India and Bali in an attempt to find herself (or at least that’s what I gathered from its online synopsis, I haven’t read it), it was later turned into a film with Julia Roberts. L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele features in both the book and film.
It opened in February and it was an obvious choice for my week of solo dining in no-reservation restaurants (see my post of yesterday). Today I made my way up to Stoke Newington to see what all the hype was about. It’s a bit of a trek (even from Whitechapel) for a pizza, so I was hoping that it would live up to the hype.
I arrived just as it opened and so there was no queue to bother with, although I’d have been surprised if there had been at 12pm on a Wednesday. Menus were already on the tables, although the size of the drinks menu far exceeds that of the food menu, consisting of only two types of pizza in regular and large sizes, the main difference being cheese or no cheese. I’m not entirely sure I’d refer to the pizza marinara as a pizza, more a tomato bread, but that’s beside the point, I suppose I have to trust that the Italians know their own cuisine.
The restaurant gets full marks from me on design. It’s all brick exposed wall, marble-topped tables, pale blue chairs, blue banquettes and Italian touches. Service, however, was brusque in a way that would be perhaps expected when the restaurant was heaving and people being demanding, but was surprising in a restaurant that was mostly empty while I was there (although a steady trickle of lunch guests was arriving by the time I left). A man turned up with two kids and despite there being four empty tables of two which could have been pushed together to make a four, it was insisted that they sit at a cramped table for two with a chair pulled up, understandable at peak time but not mid-week at lunch when two of those other tables remained during the time I was there.
“Before I left Rome he gave me the name of a pizzeria in Naples that I had to try, because, Giovanni informed me, it sold the best pizza in Naples. I found this a wildly exciting prospect, given that the best pizza in Italy is from Naples, and the best pizza in the world is from Italy, which means that this pizzeria must offer … I’m almost too superstitious to say it … the best pizza in the world? Giovanni passed along the name of the place with such seriousness and intensity, I almost felt I was being inducted into a secret society. He pressed the address into the palm of my hand and said, in gravest confidence, “Please go to this pizzeria. Order the Margherita pizza with double mozzarella. If you do not eat this pizza when you are in Naples, please lie to me later and tell me that you did” – so says Elizabeth Gilbert and so that’s what I did. I ordered the Margherita with double mozzarella.
It arrived at the table full of promise, looking exactly as a pizza should – melted cheese, puffy crust and slightly hanging off the plate. One lone basil leaf looked a little sad adrift in the middle of the cheese – what would Queen Margherita think to the pizza created in honour of her and the Italian flag?
But, is the proof of the pizza in the eating? Unfortunately not. If a pizza is kept simple and only has a few toppings then they need to be great, I need to be able to taste the cheese and tomato and they need to sing. In this instance, they didn’t. They were overwhelmingly overpowered by a slight undertone of charcoal from the base. Sure, there were a few mouthfuls when it was great and the tomato-ey base really hit the spot for me, but largely it didn’t. The base is fluffy and soft and I found myself missing the bite of a crisp-based wood-fired pizza, especially when I got to the middle of the pizza where the juice of the tomatoes had pooled to create a soggy centre.
I had wanted it to be great. I really did. I wanted it to be the best pizza I’d ever tasted, I wanted to be blown away, I almost wanted it to ruin every other pizza I ever had for me, just to know I’d had a truly amazing pizza. Sadly, it wasn’t to be (maybe so much the better for every other pizza).
With two Pizza Union restaurants within walking distance of my flat, serving up crisp pizzas with more than two toppings (I don’t count the sad basil leaf to be a topping), for half of the price of L’Antica together with dessert and friendly service, I don’t think I’ll be switching my allegiances any time soon. I won’t have to lie to Giovanni, but you won’t be missing out if you do.