Located in the heart of Camberwell, just a short walk from Denmark Hill and Peckham Rye, I’d come across Theo’s Pizzeria through the wonderful world of Instagram and deliciously tempting snaps of Neapolitan sourdough pizzas in one of my favourite spots in South London. I was also very keen on entering their Instagram competition to win a pizza voucher! Perfect January pick-me-up. And as founder Theo Lewis is ex-head chef of Pizza East, he has high credentials when it comes to making dough and topping it.
Located on Grove Lane, just off the bustling Camberwell Church Street, the restaurant occupies two rooms, with a series of tables and booths. There’s also a garden area with a canopy of grape vines overhead. The space is beautifully simplistic: off-white brushed walls, marble table tops (although my companion and I were given a wooden table), wooden benches, and elegant shelves displaying vino and potted plants. The large square communal table is also perfect for eyeing up fellow diners’ pizza orders and reflects the way in which this place has a neighbourhood feel. The setting makes it the perfect spot for a leisurely pizza lunch or dinner in a space where you just want to linger and watch the world go by. The busy takeaway trade here is also testament to its popularity: indeed, when I got to speak to Theo himself working his magic near the pizza oven, he was busy prepping for two large takeaway orders.
Unmissable as you walk through the door is the real star of the show: the dome-shaped, wood-fired brick oven. The bases are Neopolitan style, made using a sourdough starter from Dusty Knuckle bakery in Dalston. Although their pizzas are available with gluten free dough made in house, for me nothing really beats a sourdough base for an authentic Neapolitan pizza, especially as the gluten-free pizzas looked far thinner and crispier in form – more akin to a Roman pizza rather than its Neapolitan counterpart.
For my companion and I, our pizzas were perfectly Neapolitan. As I prefer simple pizzas, with just a couple of toppings, we shared the Bufalina (£10) to start, with cherry tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella and basil. The buffalo mozzarella had been placed onto the pizza just after baking, and so was deliciously fresh and melting before our eyes. This pizza proved it best to focus on the simple things when it comes to pizza. The produce was top notch: tomatoes are San Marzano (Strianese brand) and the mozzarella is Bianca la Bufala (flown in from Naples). Theo’s chefs are capable of doing wonderful things with quality ingredients.
For a bit of a contrast and in the mood for a bianco, we went on to share the Chestnut Mushroom (£9) with mozzarella, leeks, artichokes and basil. The toppings were very generous and green, which paired perfectly with our side Salad (£5) of gem lettuce, cucumber, radish and lemon dressing.
The pizzas here definitely compete with Franco Manca and 400 Rabbits: the crust was soft and chewy on top and crisp underneath: looking at the base, I found the distinctive “leopard spotting” charred pattern caused by gentle burning against the hot stone oven floor. These spots gave the pizza a welcome smoky, bitter flavour. Meanwhile, in contrast to the puffy, chewy crust, the centres of the pizzas were oozing: the dough was thinner, and the tomatoes, cheese and toppings became dreamily mixed up. Luckily for my partner-in-crime when it comes to pizza – mummy Shah – their chilli sauce, as proclaimed on their website, has a bit of a reputation and for her, it lived up to it very well.
The affogato my companion enjoyed after was also the perfect light palette cleanser after a very filling pizza.
I probably most enjoyed Theo’s because of the welcoming atmosphere, particularly from one of the waiters, who I learnt was vegan and thoroughly recommended the Marinara with a few extra toppings. As Franco Manca has become something of a chain now – with about 18 restaurants now across London, straying far away from its Brixton roots – I prefer supporting smaller, “independent” pizzerias. It feels a little more personalised, bespoke and intimate as compared with Franco, who always feel like they’re trying to rush you out. Theo’s has upped the pizza game in SE5 and South London more widely.
Theo’s Pizzeria, No 2 Grove Lane, London, SE5 8SY