Franco Manca – Tottenham Court Road, London
Franco Manca makes great pizzas. But everyone already knows that and that’s why since Giuseppe Mascoli opened the first tiny restaurant in Brixton Market in 2008 they have spawned another twelve branches dotted throughout the standard other shit-hole-ten-years-ago locations. David Page, former chief executive of PizzaExpress and founder of restaurant investment behemoth Fulham Shore PLC also knows this, and that is why he bought up the chain in March 2015 for £27.5milion. The Tottenham Court Road branch that I visited has already been operated as a franchise by Fulham Shore since it opened in 2014. They were probably testing whether the pizzeria was indeed the kind of investment opportunity that every City twonk feverishly dreams about at night, cosily Xanaxed in their Egyptian cotton sheets. Given this recent business development, if you are reading this review in 2017, and are sitting in Cambridge, Bristol, Birmingham or Manchester, you will probably be able to pop fifteen minutes down the road and visit your own local Franco Manca. Will they ruin it? As I tap out this sentence on my keyboard I can smell the gentle aroma of charred sourdough crust drifting up from my fingers and nails, oh I really hope they don’t…
Pizza is, in essence, a cheap street food. There is a old story that the Mariana, topped with just tomatoes and garlic, was created to suit the local sailors whose limited funds could not stretch to cheese. However, despite being made from flour, yeast, salt, water, tomatoes and simple toppings, and have the potential two-man production rate of about forty an hour, the average London diner does not raise so much as an eyebrow when charged over £10 for one. Refreshingly, ‘Manco starts their range of pies at a realistic £5.90. The erratic pricing of each of the different topped pizzas (£6.85, £6.70, £6.95 etc.) seems to suggest they are trying to cut their margins fine on the ingredients to stay competitive. Oh I’m sure those impoverished Italian sailors would throw baby tantrums and lisp insults at the waiters at this price but your typical Londoner will weep with happiness – these will be diners that have to spend 60% of their monthly salary on a studio flat in Zone 3, then, like a tax on joy, must fork out nearly £20 every time they want to have a meal and a pint with a friend. It’s no wonder I know someone who lives in their car, ‘I’m beating the system’ he insists.
There is something beautiful about the process of traditional pizza making and, gloriously, at all branches of Franco Manca you have full view of the kitchen. The way the stubbily-chinned pizzaiolo turns a squat dough ball into a topped, oven-ready disc in under fifteen seconds, even taking into account unnecessary ‘flaring’ actions like twirling it around on one finger above his head, is endlessly watchable. The little clockwork system continues: with a long-handled wooden paddle another flour-dusted gentleman loads the pizzas one-by-one into the flickering orange mouth of a brick oven, deftly swaps to a metal paddle to give them a spin and then slides them out ninety seconds later directly onto waiting plates. A third man lifts up each pizza, quality-controlling the base to confirm their readiness, gives the crust a quick scrape with a metal comb to minimise burnt bits, and then whisks four or five pizzas off to the tables on his arms. To have this process on show is fairly traditional in pizzeria, but it’s a theatrical and entertaining novelty. More fundamentally, I think witnessing your food taking shape in front of you connects you with people who make it and enriches the experience of eating (oh jesus that sounds soppy).
I think the trinity of charred sour dough, aromatic, fluffy and chewy, topped with super-tomatoey tomato sauce suffused with basil and finished with good fresh mozzarella is one that is rather cohesive and wonderful and is the reason why Franco Manca is now in the dining repertoire of most people who live in London. There’s a few baffled detractors. I heard a middle-aged couple commenting on the elongated queue of people waiting to get in on a Thursday night – “Why are they all queuing when there’s another pizza place round the corner?” – Why? Duuuh, because the one round the corner (ICCO) has been blown out the water. Jesus Christ, do you not understand how food works in London? Something new comes along, it trundles by quietly plying its trade mostly to friends, gets word-of-mouth publicity, friends of friends of friends start turning up, a second branch opens up, it catches a zeitgeist, Timeout gives it a good write up, it gets big, now everyone’s going, it gets corporate investment, ten more branches open up, the original owners walk away millionaires, five slightly worse simulations appear all financed by big restaurant money all graphic-designed within an inch of their lives, Topman do a range of T-shirts referencing it, its mainstream, its over, its bull-shit, the Evening Standard do an opinion piece on it as a cultural trend. Then I find out about it and start eating there, telling all my long-suffering friends how good it is.
98 Tottenham Court Rd
London W1T 4TR
020 7580 1913
Open Mon-Thurs 11.30am – 11pm, Fri-Sat 11.30am – 11.30pm, Sun 12 noon – 10pm