The Delicious Journey of Pizza Express: A Revolution in Casual Dining

If you grew up in London in the nineties or noughties, you’ll remember the legendary Pizza Express parties. With their striped chef hats, marble tables, and waiters armed with oversized pepper grinders, these celebrations were the epitome of cool. But Pizza Express wasn’t just for parties – it was also the go-to spot for business dinners, family meals, and romantic dates. With its stylish ambiance and British twist on Italian cuisine, Pizza Express stole the hearts of a nation.

The story began with Peter Boizot, an enterprising entrepreneur from Peterborough. After tasting the cheesy, doughy delight that is authentic Italian pizza, Peter decided that London needed a taste of this culinary sensation. In 1965, he introduced Pizza Express to the world from a small window hatch on Wardour Street in Soho. The pizza was served with plastic cutlery that would sometimes melt in the cheese, but that didn’t deter pizza enthusiasts. At just two shillings a slice, the initial earnings were modest, but once the menu was perfected, chairs were added, and metal cutlery was introduced, Pizza Express revolutionized the casual dining scene in London.

Now, let me share a personal confession. I’m a die-hard Pizza Express superfan. The memories of my childhood are intertwined with the aromas of dough balls and garlic butter. I can still vividly recall standing in the stockroom of Pizza Express Beckenham as my parents struck a deal with a waiter to purchase a set of Peroni Nastro Azzurro pint glasses. In those moments, fueled by margherita pizza and the joy of celebration, I experienced true bliss. Many of my birthdays were spent in the enchanting atmosphere of Pizza Express, captivated by the monochrome decor, magnificent spiral staircases, and captivating Italian-inspired murals.

Despite facing criticism and the closure of 73 branches in 2020, Pizza Express continues to stand tall with 22 London restaurants and over 500 locations worldwide. Its cool jazz lineups have become legendary, and who can resist the allure of their famous dough balls? But how did Pizza Express achieve this iconic status? Let’s dive into the captivating history of Pizza Express in London as recounted by employees, pizza experts, obsessive superfan customers, and musicians, featuring appearances from real-life royalty, celebrities, and even a “floating cheese” explosion.

The Birth of the Pizzeria Revolution

While other London eateries offered individual slices of pizza alongside typical pasta dishes, Pizza Express was a pioneer fully committed to serving full-size pizzas. The brand’s pizza had a unique identity from the start. Unlike the airy, sourdough creations of newer chains, Pizza Express opted for a sweet, almost sugary dough with a thin and crispy crust. It may sound simple, but back in 1965, it was a game-changer.

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According to Rob Weller, design director at Pizza Express, the 1960s were a vibrant time of post-war optimism. The restaurant scene was thriving, and Pizza Express played a significant role in that transformation. Peter Boizot’s dedication and innovation were evident from the start. When the pizza oven he brought from Italy couldn’t fit through the restaurant’s door on Wardour Street, Peter took matters into his own hands. He smashed down the shopfront, installed the oven, and rebuilt the shop, setting the tone for Pizza Express’s bold and boundary-pushing approach.

Digby Fairweather, a trumpet player in the in-house “Pizza Express All Stars” jazz band in 1976, confirms Peter’s hands-on involvement in the business. Digby describes Peter as an amicable and well-spoken man who could often be found behind the chef’s counter, cooking pizzas or attending to other tasks. His genuine passion for jazz was evident through the acts he booked for Pizza Express, making it a hub for renowned musicians and jazz enthusiasts alike.

The Iconic Menu: A Symphony of Flavors

The name says it all: Pizza Express is all about pizza. Ordering pasta is strictly forbidden, as the true champions know. Start your feast with their iconic dough balls, which have become a tradition for many families. Pizza Express sells over five and a half million portions of these delectable starters each year. For the main event, an American Hot pizza is always a winner, followed by the indulgent finale of chocolate fudge cake. It’s a three-course meal fit for royalty.

Josh Kirby, a self-proclaimed Pizza Express superfan, declares that the dough balls are the genius of the menu. For Antenor Siqueira, a former pizza chef and Innovation Manager at Pizza Express, the creation of the iconic dough balls was a stroke of culinary brilliance. They were invented by baking leftover pieces of dough and dipping them in garlic butter, transforming them into a heavenly delight.

Gerardo del Guercio, a pizza connoisseur at the Bite Twice food blog who has reviewed over 700 pizzas worldwide, asserts that Pizza Express’s cheesy garlic bread and dough balls are among the best globally. The memories of using two-for-one vouchers for cheap eats during his early dating days still hold a special place in his heart.

Liz Shanks, a former employee at the Bromley branch in 1990, reminisces about the predictability of customers’ pizza choices. However, she affirms that Pizza Express was ahead of its time, offering freshly made dishes from scratch that never failed to impress.

According to Josh, Pizza Express pizza is unrivaled even in comparison to the Neapolitan originals. He proudly admits to frequenting Pizza Express at least twice a month, inching ever closer to gold membership status on their loyalty app.

The commitment to quality extends to the ingredients as well. Antenor reveals that the passata used in Pizza Express pizzas has been sourced from the Italian Greci family since 1965, with the original signed contract preserved as part of Pizza Express’s heritage.

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Although the menu has evolved over the years, Bonnie Godsil, a former waitress at the London Bridge branch in 2002, assures us that the iconic dishes like dough balls, American Hot pizza, and chocolate fudge cake have remained beloved classics. Pizza Express has successfully struck a balance between modernization and staying true to its roots.

Reinventing the Chain Restaurant Experience

One of the remarkable aspects of Pizza Express is that each restaurant has its own unique ambiance. Whether it’s an old church, a converted dairy, or a repurposed bank vault, Pizza Express manages to maintain its distinctive character while still being instantly recognizable.

Malcolm Fraser, the architect responsible for designing 13 Pizza Express restaurants, shares the intent behind the design. Pizza Express set out to create an experience where people didn’t just come for a meal but enjoyed a memorable outing with their families. The brand’s approach revolutionized how chains presented themselves to the public, emphasizing the importance of creating a distinctive and appealing atmosphere.

Bonnie Godsil, who worked at the London Bridge branch in 2002, recalls the diverse mix of customers. From couples enjoying an affordable night out to stylish professionals and tourists, Pizza Express catered to a broad range of people. At the Kentish Town branch housed in an old church, Ella Doyle, a longtime Pizza Express customer and Time Out Guides Editor, fondly remembers the live jazz performances and the chefs who would playfully give children small pieces of dough to play with.

Pizza Meets Jazz (and Royalty)

Pizza Express and the Soho jazz scene are inseparable. The Jazz Club on Dean Street, opened in 1976, became a haven for both famous American musicians and popular singers like Van Morrison, Amy Winehouse, and Sam Smith, who serenaded enthusiastic pizza lovers.

Digby recalls that in the 1970s, the London jazz scene was bustling with clubs like the 100 Club on Oxford Street and Ronnie Scott’s on Frith Street. Pizza Express found its unique niche, showcasing a wide range of talented musicians who had honed their craft in America from the late 1920s to the early 1970s.

Ross, the music manager at Pizza Express, proudly shares the illustrious history of the Dean Street venue. The list of performers reads like a who’s who of music legends, including Tony Bennett, Jools Holland, and the late Amy Winehouse. Ross himself had the privilege of witnessing one of Amy’s performances shortly before her untimely passing. He describes her as charming, enthusiastic, and completely sober, despite being a bit rusty with her lines as she delved into old jazz standards.

Pizza Express also developed a unique tradition of naming pizzas after special guests. Digby fondly remembers pizzas named after jazz musicians Bud Freeman and Ruby Braff. Although Peter Boizot wasn’t a jazz expert himself, his passion for the genre was evident in every aspect of Pizza Express, and he entrusted others to book acts that would keep the jazz legacy alive.

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The Future of Pizza Express in 2023

The uncertainty surrounding Pizza Express during the Covid-19 pandemic had fans on the edge of their seats. Fortunately, despite the closure of 73 branches, the brand has managed to bounce back and thrive. With regular menu updates and a balance between new offerings and classic favorites, Pizza Express continues to evolve. Recent highlights include the opening of a new branch on Hackney’s Mare Street and the snazzy refurbishment of the Highgate location.

Malcolm Fraser reflects on the bittersweet experience of seeing his designs disappear as some restaurants were converted into other establishments. However, he acknowledges the lasting impact Pizza Express had on the casual dining scene and the joy it brought to countless customers.

Rob, looking back on the challenges of past years, reveals that the business went through a financial restructuring known as a CVA. Although some restaurants had to close, Pizza Express emerged stronger from the process. The brand’s ability to adapt and cater to changing tastes is a testament to its enduring success.

Gerardo believes that Pizza Express’s resilience sets it apart from other Italian pizza chains that have faltered. Despite the emergence of new players, Pizza Express remains a strong and beloved presence in the pizza culture. He credits the brand for paving the way for the thriving pizza scene we see today.

As Rob proudly mentions, Pizza Express has expanded globally, with restaurants in Spain, Singapore, China, and India. The India branch even introduced the Tikka Paneer Romana pizza to cater to local tastes.

For loyal Pizza Express fans like Josh, the brand continues to offer an affordable and enjoyable dining experience, even in the face of the current cost of living crisis. With the loyal customer app providing discounts and perks, Pizza Express remains the go-to place for a delicious meal and a refreshing drink without breaking the bank.

Johnnie Tate, CEO of Yard Sale Pizza, acknowledges Pizza Express’s role as a trailblazer in the casual dining industry. Their supermarket range, featuring favorites like margherita pizza, dough balls, and salad dressings, has left an indelible mark on many childhood memories.

Antenor emphasizes that Pizza Express has always been committed to providing excellent food and a delightful ambience at an affordable price. As evidence of their commitment to innovation, Pizza Express recently introduced pizza wraps for those looking for a quick bite on the go.

Despite all the changes over the years, one thing remains certain: the soul of Peter Boizot lives on within Pizza Express. It is a testament to his vision and passion that the brand continues to captivate pizza lovers and create memorable experiences, forging a remarkable journey through the world of casual dining.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, all this talk of delicious pizza has made me crave a trip to my nearest Pizza Express. Join me for a slice of pizza perfection at Hook’d Up Bar and Grill, where the spirit of Pizza Express lives on.