Having feasted on many pizzas at Franco Manca, a post-facto review of this iconic and immensely popular pizzeria is on the table. If you thought great pizza began and ended in Italy, think again. Indeed, my first pizza at Franco Manca was a sort of “pizza awakening” for me and inspired me to begin my pizza pilgrimage over London. It continues to be a legend amongst foodies, as evident from the long queues outside almost all its branches. Nevertheless, it’s not just the reasonable prices that draw in the crowds, but the pizzas themselves, of course.
Franco Manca is owned by a husband-and-wife team, Giuseppe Mascoli and Bridget Hugo. From the southern Italian town of Positano, Mascoli takes pizzas very seriously. Before he and Hugo opened Franco Manca, they turned his kitchen into a dough laboratory and it took months to perfect the recipe. The restaurant uses organic flour, made especially for the purpose in Italy, and a slow-rising sourdough whose recipe dates back – so they tell us – to the late 18th century. As Franco Manca’s pizzas have a sourdough crust, the dough is made using a starter culture, not yeast. The starter used was actually stolen by a friend from a bakery on Ischia (a small island off the coast of Naples) and dates from at least the 1730s.
The pizza-making routine that Mascoli and Hugo have established runs with military precision to ensure a perfectly formed slow-rising sourdough: each afternoon at three o’clock the head pizza chef – or pizzaiolo – makes the batch of dough that will be used for tomorrow’s pizzas. A small amount of starter is mixed with large quantities of flour, water and salt, and the dough then spends an hour in an electric mixer (imported from Naples) before being left to rise in a special proofing cabinet until the following morning. By this point, the dough is incredibly elastic and is then shaped into individual balls, which, after an hour’s further proofing, are ready to be made into pizzas.
Franco Manca satisfies any craving for good value, genuine, Neapolitan style pizza with a flavourful slow-rise, sourdough crust baked in a wood-burning oven. The “Tuff” brick ovens are even built by artisans in Naples to strict dimensions. There are strict rules governing the ingredients used, the type of oven in which the pizza is cooked, even the way the dough is handled. In most of their restaurants, you have a view of the kitchen and it’s really fun to watch the pizzas being prepared before you: the chefs hands move astonishingly fast as they place the dough on a floured surface, go over it a few times with a rolling pin, and then flatten it further by hand. The pizzas are cooked or “blasted” at more than 500 °C – twice as hot as the hottest setting on a domestic oven – for exactly 40 seconds. This short cooking time guarantees a crust with just the right combination of crispness and chewiness. So good are the edges that I never discard them.
It was only when I tucked into my first pizza here that I began to understand the difference this attention to detail makes. The first thing that struck me about these pizzas was not their toppings, but the base. I’d always assumed that the best pizzas have super-thin crusts. Yet, whilst Roman pizzas are thinner, Neapolitan pizza bases are surprisingly thick, especially around the edge as the heat of the oven causes it to flare up in angry blisters. Although the dough is crisp on the outside, inside it’s soft and chewy, almost like Indian naan. Indeed, before I tuck into my pizza, I like to inspect the underside to ensure the crust is covered in small black charcoal marks; this leopard-like skin shows that the pizza is cooked just right. Rather than being a vehicle for the topping, the base is the pizza’s true focus.
Yet, the topping is not irrelevant to the dining experience here. Franco Manca source their ingredients with care: the olives and olive oil come from a particular producer in Spain (as apparently Spanish olives are better than Italian ones); the tomatoes are procured from a cannery situated in the mountains next to Naples; the coffee is from Moumouth Street; my mum is a great fan of the Lemonade made from Amalfi lemons; and the mozzarella, which is made specially for Franco Manca at an organic farm in Somerset, is wonderfully buttery. The cheese billows out luxuriantly across the surface of the crust and mingles well with the tomato. The elements of the topping – acidity (tomatoes) and richness (cheese) – are perfectly balanced. And its gooey, almost liquid texture is offset by the chewiness of the bread.
The menu is brief, comprised of six pizzas priced between £4.50 and £6.95. Purists should go for Tomato, garlic and oregano (£4.50), or Tomato, mozzarella and basil (£5.90). I’ve also often ordered a DIY topping of Mozzarella, buffalo ricotta and wild mushrooms (£6.80), which is bianco, as the tomato would likely overwhelm the flavour of the girolles. But I wouldn’t go to Franco Manca and not try at least a slice of one of their tomato pizzas, which are incredibly rich and delicious. I even request extra tomatoes on pizza when I order as the sauce is generally sparingly applied. Not so impressive, however, is the addition of Friarielli (wild broccoli); although it’s certainly strong in iron, I’ve been put off by its rather bitter aftertaste.
Worryingly for me, Franco Manca has expanded into something of a “chain” and can now be found all over Central, South London (stretching to Bromley) and even Belsize Park – at least it’s not venturing too far north I suppose. But for me, the original branch is it’s Brixton homeland; housed in the covered section of Brixton Market, squeezed between a fishmonger and a mobile-phone shop, this branch is worth queuing for as it brings all the fun of street food inside and overlooks the bustling market arcade. Although they do try to rush you out of here a little too quickly – probably to serve the customers in the oh-so-long queue – it’s still the most authentic version of Franco Manca. For a family meal, though, I’d recommend the charming Balham branch or the East Dulwich outpost, which further enhances Lordship Lane’s status as a foodie haven.