The slow unravelling of the once-mighty Pizza Express is almost enough to make me become a republican.
I’m sure Prince Andrew isn’t single-handedly to blame for bringing down the crumbling restaurant empire – which is being forced to permanently close 73 more outlets across the UK this month (in fact, the chain says the real reason is the pandemic) – but it sure can’t have helped that its good name was sullied by his infamous alibi about visiting the Woking branch for Princess Beatrice’s birthday. He embroiled a national treasure in an international scandal, forever shaking any allegiance I once had to the Royal family.
I love Pizza Express. Not with a fiery passion – 15 years after my first dalliance, the honeymoon phase is well and truly over – but with a warm sense of contentment that means I feel reassured whenever I catch a glimpse of that unnecessarily elaborate logo, all whorls and curlicues encased in a steadfast circle.
I have eaten there more times than I can count, more times than I can remember; and yet I have never eaten a bad meal there. That’s always been its secret, the silver bullet that set it apart. Yes, it might be boring, generic, predictable. But flip that notion on its head, and what have you got? Dependable, safe, good quality every single time. The chain took the concept of a fast-food franchise – the idea that, no matter where you are in the world, a Big Mac will always taste the same – and applied it to a sit-down pizza restaurant. Genius.
OK, it’s not adventurous, but it’s that rarest and most precious of things: an unerringly pleasant, risk-free dining experience. It’s comforting to know the menu off by heart. It’s strangely enjoyable to read the entire thing each time, as if there’s any real possibility you might order something different from the same two dishes you have eaten there on every single visit for several decades. Of course, you don’t – but hey, it’s fun to pretend.
For me, it’s always been a Padana (goat’s cheese, mozzarella, caramelised onion, red onion, tomato and garlic oil – hold the spinach), alongside an occasional flirtation with the Giardiniera (artichoke, mushrooms, red onion and black olives).
For my mother, it’s even more straightforward: she’s been ordering the Veneziana (pine kernels, red onion, capers, black olives, sultanas, mozzarella and tomato) since the early 1980s. (I think she gets a kick out of feeling like a benevolent philanthropist – Pizza Express still, 40 years later, donates 25p to the Venice in Peril fund for every one sold.) I know this about her because, somehow, Pizza Express has become Our Place over the years. With all the insane choice of eateries to pick from in London, whenever she comes to see me she always suggests it – no matter how many cool, up-and-coming concepts I proffer up.
“There’s this new Brazilian barbecue place!” I might enthuse, or, “We could grab authentic ceviche from this street food truck?” My mum smiles and nods, and we somehow end up back watching chefs in black and white-striped T-shirts tossing dough in an open kitchen. It’s like witchcraft.
After a couple of years, I stopped even trying to dissuade her. Deep down, I had to admit I loved the “no surprises” factor too. It was nice to switch off for a change, to not have to research and choose and try (and fail) to book the latest “must-visit” restaurant.
It never pulls focus, never overwhelms with trendiness, stuffiness or pomposity, never distracts from the real reason you’re there
The branch was immaterial – as I moved around the capital, we switched locations, but the quality was always hearteningly identical. We’d talk about jobs and flat moves and relationships, always over the same pizzas, the house wine and, at the end, a “dolcetti” – a mini dessert accompanied by a coffee. I cannot tell you how happy this made my mum, a woman who is incapable of eating a whole pudding but always wants a bite of someone else’s. Finally, a dessert designed for her sparrow-like appetite.
Pizza Express has formed the backdrop to so many occasions over the years – pre-wedding lunches, awkward dinners with exes, family get-togethers – where its very genericness and familiarity are also its greatest strengths. As comfortable as a favourite old sweatshirt, it never pulls focus, never overwhelms with trendiness, stuffiness or pomposity, never distracts from the real reason you’re there: to eat good food and spend time with the people in your life.
It seems like the rest of the world is moving on from the stable, staple family restaurant chain of my youth. Maybe it is too stuck in its ways; maybe coronavirus was the final straw; or maybe its prices just don’t make sense in the era of Franco Manca, where you can pick up a sourdough tomato pizza for just £5.20 and a tumbler of wine for under a fiver.
But there will always be a special place in my heart for Pizza Express, one of the most satisfying long-term relationships I’ve ever had. And I’m sure Prince Andrew feels the same way. He’ll be delighted to hear that the Woking branch remains open… No thanks to him.