Zeren Wilson descends on Franco Manca for its official launch evening in Chiswick, and finds the philosophy and simplicity of the Brixton original perfectly preserved in its new home.
Who is Franco Manca?
Those who know about pizza in London, those who care enough to seek out the finest sourdough crust, with the most impeccably sourced ingredients, have known about Franco Manca in Brixton market for some time.
Open only at weekday lunchtimes, this Brixton beacon of a pizzeria has remained under the mainstream radar, despite several glowing reviews – all this is about to change.
Giuseppe Mascoli, Bridget Hugo and co-owner Sami Wasif have landed in Chiswick with their first full-blown incarnation of the Franco Manca brand, in the first stage of a planned seven restaurants over the next three years.
There is a core of integrity running through every element of the restaurants, beginning with the mosaic-tiled, wood burning "Tufae" brick oven built on site by specialist artisans from Naples. Pizzas are immersed in the oven for exactly forty seconds, to achieve the right combination of crispness and chewiness in the sourdough crust.
The Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, set up to maintain standards in Italian pizza making, insist on leaving the dough to rise for a minimum of six hours. Franco Manca leave theirs for at least twenty – this is hardcore pizza lore.
The starter culture for the dough is said to have been stolen by a friend of the owners from a bakery on a small island off the coast of Naples, who claims it dates back to the 1730's. You have to love this story.
Flour is sourced from Naples, organic tomatoes imported directly from Salerno, single-estate organic extra-virgin olive oil brought in also exclusively, along with the bombshell that the Buffalo mozzarella is made in Somerset. An artisan mozzarella producer from the Southern Apennines has taught the Alham Wood organic cheese-makers to refine their mozzarella making skills from their own buffalos.
Obsessive attention to detail? Maybe, but all of this would be nothing if the pizzas didn't deliver. And they do.
Tomato, Mozzarella, Basil - no room to hide, this is finger suckingly good, a thin crisp edge blackened here and there, and a glorious chewy, cheesy centre, with a decent lick of tangy, sweet tomato.
Tomato, Cured Organic Chorizo, Mozzarella - Brindisa chorizo gives this one the necessary garlicky kick, with a smoky paprika vibe, and a decent lick of chilli heat.
Tomato, Garlic, Oregano, Capers, Olives, Anchovy, Mozzarella - Properly punchy anchovies and good capers (the expensive small ones, not the cop-out fat boys), make this suitably grown-up. Anchovy haters should run for the hills.
There are some excellent smaller plates, which are the big addition to the menu from the Brixton original, with an uncompromisingly dense and meaty Gloucester Old Spot Salami, spiked with Fennel seeds, and Baked Aubergines cooked to slippery goodness, although small sourdough balls of Zizzi Da' Regina are a little clunky and heavy compared to the lightness of those cracking pizza bases, so ease off on these and go large for the main event.
Desserts are short and snappy, a wildly successful Raspberry Yoghurt Polenta Torte slapping me about with a zesty, citrus-charged square of soft polenta, a lively Lemon Sorbet is suitably invigorating.
House Lemonade is made with Amalfi lemons, and tastes positively virtuous.
With pizzas between £4.50-6.80, all of this is shockingly good value. Slap in the face good value. Reality check good value. Next time you walk past Prezzo and consider the Spicy Beef for 8.95 a pop, just stop and think a moment. Please don't do it, just don't do it. Ever.
Notable mention must go to the wine.
Imported by Giuseppe and Guillaume Aubert through their wine importing business Aubert Mascoli, the one winemaker offered is leading a messianic charge for the natural/bio-dynamic wine movement currently sweeping the London restaurant scene.
This is wine tip-toeing on the edge of what most wine drinkers are used to, occasionally stepping towards unexplored flavour profiles, yet challenging and complex in the best possible way for any wine drinker, whether they quaff Grand Cru Burgundy, or Friday night Pinot Grigio on draught at the local All Bar One.
Ottavio Rube, whose winery and farm Valli Unite in Piemonte is making wine bio-dynamically, with little or no sulphur added (the preservative added to virtually all commercial wine), is the only wine you will drink here – genuinely thought provoking, alive, wine that invites you to engage with it and take a stance.
From the subtly sparkling Brut & the Beast 2008, made with the Piemontese Favorita and Cortese varietals, to the rustic, savoury Vigna del Barbote 2005, from a single-vineyard of just ½ a hectare of unknown old vines, you are pulled and pushed down untrodden vinous paths – truly exciting.
Prices start at £9.80 for the Organic Dolcetto and Malvasia Secca entry level wines. Value and integrity of product is a killer combination.
The night we went it was the official launch party, Giuseppe, Bridget and Sami were seen carousing the invited, and I'm told it was the first time winemaker Ottavio had ever been outside of Italy, a cute fact that says much about the artisan producers that have been gathered within the Franco Manca stable.
So who is Franco Manca? He's someone and no-one. Franco is the name of the owner of the Brixton pizzeria before Franco Manca evolved, and the Manca is "missing" in Italian.
Franco's missing, but the pizza's are all there.
The Restauraphile here was Zeren Wilson
144 Chiswick High Road
0208 747 2822