If I told you that having a girlfriend of Italian heritage – whose father, Pippo, was from Naples – has made me a pizza connoisseur, I would be lying. Even after a lot of education from The European, who will forever disapprove of my occasional yearnings for Domino’s Pizza, and even a trip to Naples and the nearby island of Ischia to sample pies from the cradle of pizza civilisation, I still like my filth. I have gotten into a habit of bringing into the family home a £2.99 ‘takeaway’-style stuffed-crust Cheese Feast from Sainsbury’s… the look on her face when I first took it out of the oven.
Thanks to Her Highness and the brief time spent in Italy, I do have an awakened appreciation as to how good pizza can be. The two ot three places we visited on that trip blew me away. Though there are numerous places in London that serve up traditional stone-baked, wood-fired and/or sourdough pizza, ranging from the chains such as Strada to more specialised establishments such as the venerable Franco Manca, there’s always a little something missing. A certain je ne sais quois. Or, as the Italians would say; non so cosa.
As October drew to a close, it marked the first anniversary of Pippo’s passing. The gentleman, a larger-than-life, flamboyant entertainer with a mini Dali-moustache, loved his food and was a mean cook too. He welcomed me into his home in Lausanne from the first moment, warmly and humbly. It seemed only right to mark the occasion with a pizza that would be worthy of his very discerning palate.
A place that has long been recommended to me is L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, on Baker Street (literally right next to the station). It’s a family affair, hailing from Naples, when Michele Condurro opened a pizza restaurant there in 1906 (it’s still there today). Known locally as the ‘sacred temple of pizza’, the pizzas made at this original restaurant are the same as its London offspring, following several faithful rules, including the strict recipe for perfect dough, that only two pizzas – the Marinara and the Margherita – can be considering ‘Neapolitan’ and a curt obligation of “no junk” in the toppings or ingredients.
Walking into L’Antica in London acts as a blissful reminder that the food is central to the experience. The restaurant is rough and ready; formica tables and uncomfortable café-style chairs, cheap-looking cutlery and an open kitchen which is nowhere near as glitzy as the one at Gloria. What hints at the glory to come are numerous pictures of celebrities snapped in the restaurant, a mural on one wall detailing the history of the Condurro family and a neon sign opposite the mural, beaming out in pink script;
“I want someone to look at me the same way i [sic] look at pizza”
There is also the small matter of the chefs twirling pizza dough and the wonderful, smiling Italian servers all making me super-confident that this was going to be a rather yummy evening. That, and the queue out of the door (you can reserve though, and even order for collection).
The menu is small; a handful of starters and pizzas only for mains (no pasta). We took a generous plate of fritto misto (arancini, crostatina, pasta frittatina and potato crocché) to begin with. A traditional pate of fried, stodgy goodies, we soon discovered that sharing this, rather than having one each, was a very good idea. Everything was very tasty, washed down well with a couple of glasses of Montepulciano. We had a long time to digest before the pizzas arrived (with a packed, reasonably large restaurant full of pizza-eaters, I guess the wood oven can only process so many at a time).
The European took it back to basics with a Margherita with pecorino and fior di latte (a cheese similar to mozzarella, from Agerola). She loved it – every bite – and for her to eat pizza in the first place, let alone ENJOY it was all the credibility this place needed. I tried it, and I was indeed wonderful – a rich tomato sauce, chewy base (no soggy bottoms here) and hints of basil. I would have eaten more, was it not for my absolute unit of a fried pizza. This (bizarrely traditional, as it looks like it was created in Scotland, not Naples) calzone-shaped carba-thon is stuffed with pressed pork, salami, fior di latte, ricotta and pecorino, before being deep-fried. It was strangely wonderful and disgusting in equal measure. I somehow finished it, pausing for many glasses of water to take the edge off the saltiness, before looking at it, wincing, and eating some more. I still dream about it today. Would I order it again? Maybe not. The ‘normal’ pizzas are just too good. Would we go back to L’Antica again? Yes, definitely. The European was the first to suggest that we do so. You pay between £ten to £twenty for a pizza, a little higher than the norm but totally worth every penny.
Not just a decent pizzeria in its own right, L’Antica is also managed very well, with happy, bouncing servers and a decently simple premise that understates just how good it really is. I loved being in the room, watching people come in, clearly hungry after doing some sightseeing, not knowing just how great things are. They begin to get quieter and quieter, taking in the atmosphere… and the dough. It’s a popular date restaurant too. The next table over from us (we were in the corner, by a glass pane when we could watch a chef stretching our doughballs and joking with his colleagues), a man was firing off pizza facts at the disinterested woman opposite.
“a small pizza is called a pizzetta, you know”.
The woman turns around to watch the kitchen. The server gives her an awkward smile.
L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele is located right next to Baker Street Station. If you take the Baker Street exit from the station, you will see the restaurant right in front of you.
- Comfort factor: 7/10
- Returnability factor: 10/10
- Taste factor: 10/10
- Lack of screaming kid factor: 5/10
- Wow factor: 7/10