I felt compelled to write about the London-based upmarket/artisan pizza mini-chain Franco Manca because I have recently eaten there for the third time (across two of its whopping 19 locations), which is enough, I think, to make a decent assessment of the chain, and have finally collected my thoughts.
Say ‘Franco Manca’ (or type it into Google) and very soon the phrase ‘best pizza in London’ will out. Franco Manca is famous for its slow-risen sourdough crust, a crust which is baked, naturally, in a wood-burning oven on-site. It’s pleasantly chewy, pliant and has a deep, complex flavour. The attention paid to the crust at the pizzeria is a definite shift in perception: so often, pizzas are all about the toppings, piled incongruously on a lacklustre base.
It’s a place where there is a relentless commitment to everything being artisanal, with no shortcuts or mass-produced products. This applies to the beverages as much as to the food – you won’t be drinking a Diet Coke here (although you can order a San Pellegrino). The insides of the restaurants (I haven’t been to all of them, obviously) tend to be simple, with simple, graphic accents on the walls, and you have the choice to sit on communal benches or tables, which have a mixture of seats and backless wooden blocks. I hate those blocks, to be honest – firstly, where can I hang my coat and scarf (et cetera) in winter? Grr.
I’ve had some decidedly mixed pizzas at Franco Manca. Obviously, when food is handmade from start to finish, inconsistencies and differences are to be expected – you aren’t going to have 15 identikit, perfectly round pizzas – but given the almost inextricable link between ‘best pizza in London’ and ‘Franco Manca’, I would expect the quality to be equally high each time, which hasn’t always been the case.
I’v tried two specials, which I have found, on the whole, slightly weaker than the pizzas featured on the normal menu. This does make sense, in that presumably the specials aren’t as practised and perfected as the usual stalwarts.
One of the Specials was quite similar to the No. 3 on its usual menu, featuring, as it did, Old Gloucester Spot sausage crumbled over the top; it also had mozzarella and raddichio. There was only a small amount of sausage crumbled over the entire pizza, and the chunks were quite large, so unless you cut them up further yourself, most mouthfuls were sausage-less (hmm. I’m not sure about that turn of phrase). The herby sausage was delicious and pulled the pizza toppings together really nicely, so its relative absence was a shame. I did enjoy eating it, but I didn’t think any of the flavours stood out – radicchio is meant to be quite strong and punchy but there was just no impact this time, none of that characteristic bitterness which would have given the food some edge. This pizza ordinarily came without tomato sauce on the base but the waiter did ask if we wanted it, and we did – it was nice that the option was offered.
The other special I’ve tried, on another occasion (okay, it was Valentine’s Day) was also a ‘white pizza’ (no tomato base), but did have a few cherry tomatoes as a topping. It also featured prosciutto and parmesan. I normally really hate cooked tomatoes but the cherry tomatoes here were still fresh and juicy. This pizza had a well-cooked, slightly crisp base – which I noticed because the other pizza we ordered had a limp, soggy base, a fact which really surprised me, given Franco Manca’s reputation. I love both prosciutto and parmesan, and the base was delicious, but I found the pizza to be, on the whole, quite salty, with very little creamy cheese or anything else to balance it out.
The most disappointing pizza I’ve tried at Franco Manca was the No. 4 from the regular menu, which features Gloucester Old Spot ham, mozzarella, buffalo ricotta and wild mushrooms. Despite the ham I found this to be very bland, with a uniformly creamy texture from the cheeses, which actually overwhelmed the base. I only really enjoyed it when I poured over some of the chilli oil (provided, along with garlic oil, as standard, on each table), which gave the flavours some lift and kick. The ham was completely overwhelmed and I hardly tasted it.
As far as my friends and I are concerned, the piece de resistance is the No. 6, the tomato, chorizo and mozzarella pizza. Mostly because…chorizo. The sausage is juicy and delicious, not too spicy, and well-distributed over the pizza. (This pizza is a middle-class pepperoni, let’s face it). I’ve eaten this one three times. The first time I had it, I thought it was really, really, really nice, but I was a little surprised that this pizza was considered so ground-breaking. The second time, I thought it was absolutely delicious, the most perfectly balanced, delicious pizza, with the warm, slightly sour crust, the sweetness of tomato and the saltiness of the chorizo coming together really beautifully. The chorizo is a little thicker than a standard pepperoni slice, so you feel like you’re getting a good chew, too. The third time…the base was flabby and undercooked. The crust around the edges was a little doughy (if Paul Hollywood has pressed it, it would “have gone back to dough”) and the base was slightly rubbery in the centre. Although the pizza was still really tasty, it very much felt like eating a more hastily-banged out product than the ‘handmade’ ethos of Franco Manca would suggest.
This isn’t meant to be a hatchet job or a warning against Franco Manca at all: I should mention that the prices for pizza here are insanely reasonable, and they are all good eating. I do think, given my experiences, that I might have enjoyed the experience more if it hadn’t been so insanely hyped-up. Franco Manca’s pizza is definitely a big step up from such chains as Pizza Express (I like Pizza Express too, but they’re not really comparable), but I have had really nice handmade pizzas elsewhere in London which have been as satisfying as a Franco Manca product. When the Franco Manca pizza is as perfectly cooked as some of the ones I have had, they are utterly delicious and hard to beat; if the base isn’t tended to with as a great care, they definitely become much more average. The emphasis on the base and quality of toppings means the toppings can sometimes be a little sparse, and I haven’t always found the flavour profiles well-balanced. But I still really enjoy going there – just keep your expectations in check, and enjoy.