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Don't Leave Us, Pizza Express, You Tired, Old, Expensive Gem

With the news of the high street chain's financial woes, we thought it was worth looking at what the restaurant has come to represent.

by Joe Bish
09 October 2019, 10:22am

As different parts of the internet either cackle or caterwaul at the dire amount of debt Pizza Express has found itself in, it seems as good a time as any to reflect on one of the British high street's most beloved institutions.

It feels medieval to think of a time when pizza wasn't the western world's most ubiquitous food, but it actually wasn't all that long ago.

Peter Boizot, a vegetarian entrepreneur from Peterborough, had eaten this ancient peasant dish of bread, cheese and tomatoes in the 1940s, fallen in love and then vowed to open a pizzeria in London. In 1965, spotting a debt-laden restaurant named Pizza Express on Soho's Wardour Street – an ill-fated venture by Italian film director Mario Zampi – he snapped it up for £100 (and £14,000 of debt), installing a pizza oven imported from the motherland.

In the 1960s, Soho had a grim dinge and stink, and Boizot wanted brightness and white. The second Pizza Express opening – in 1967, on Holborn's Coptic Street – is where the look we've come to associate with the restaurant was incubated. Enzo Apicella, a charming and cheeky Italian designer who used to scare people with a waxwork of himself propped up at a restaurant table, took his hand to this branch and several of its descendants.

Apicella was one of a group of designers responsible for revolutionising what Italian restaurants in London were to look like. As the design critic Stephen Bayley put it in his obituary for the Italian: "Out went murals of the erupting Vesuvius, tourist board posters of Lake Como and trellis with plastic vines. In came cool tiles, white paint, downlights, Magistretti chairs and proper art. Thanks to Apicella, the Pizza Express in Fulham had murals by Eduardo Paolozzi, forming in many customers' minds an unbreakable connection between pop art and pizza margherita."

Boizot saw his collection of restaurants as "a necklace of individual gems", though clearly not precious enough to keep as heirlooms, selling the company in 1996 for £40 million. It was then sold again, now as a domestic and partly international megalith, for an upsetting £900 million, to a Chinese capital firm in 2014.

Boizot and Apicella died within two months of each other last year. They would no doubt have seen the rapid decline of the high street chain restaurant, stomachs braced. You wonder, though, before their respective deaths, whether they fully realised the influence their creation has had on the tidbits of the British psyche. Did they know what it meant to the man on the ground, discovering a Peroni Nastro Azzurro and the simple delight of a Romana?

While Pizza Express cuts something of a sad figure on most high streets today – largely pretty empty, save for some bad dates and bored dads – it was, for the bulk of the 1990s to mid-2000s, a good place to go. This had nothing to do with the live jazz Boizot introduced in certain branches, but "jazziness" in a different sense.

Whether it was a real or mentally-concocted sense of quality and class, Pizza Express didn't feel – in a word – shit. It was bright, there was marble, the waiting staff were young and slick. The comically erotic phallic pepper mill loomed between you and your pre-cinema teenage dinner date, vigorously twisted at, narrowly missing that plastic flower in a blue glass vase in the centre of every table. It was modish and European in the face of American deep-dish microwaved biscuits and the Hut's oppressive all-you-can-eat buffet.

pizza express
Photo: VICE

For me personally, it became a strange kind of halfway house. It's somewhere my dad – himself imbued with the kind of aspirational attitude that the chain made some feel – would take me when no one could be bothered to cook. Outside of my home, it's the place we've probably spent the most time together. Years of bonding occurred in the Streatham High Street Pizza Express, as conversations about school turned into conversations about work and I started drinking large Peronis with him. To this day he orders the exact same thing: a La Reine with pepperoni.

Most painful about the potential demise of Pizza Express is how inevitable it is. I'm surprised it hasn't already happened. What was once a relatively inexpensive jaunt into moderate quality is now just… expensive – an extravagance the people of this wheezing, sobbing nosebleed of a country simply can't justify anymore.

The proliferation of places like Franco Manca make sense in this era: austere, cheap, brand-less, anonymous booze, cutlery in giant old tomato tins, everything reclaimed and recycled, reversion to the peasantry from where it began and, perhaps most importantly, "authentic". Though Pizza Express occasionally tried to conform to the times, it clearly needed to innovate a bit more than sticking a load of rocket in the centre of a hollowed-out pizza.

Pizza Express is still alive and, if this Twitter thread is to be believed, its doom is maybe a way off – and a source told the Guardian that the chain is not in danger of collapse. But as various high street casual dining staples continue to close, it might not be such a bad idea to get your fill of American Expresses and garlic dough balls while you still can.

The last time Pizza Express came whispering back into the consciousness of people now too good for it was in 2014, when a student wrote a review of a branch in Peterborough, the city Boizot left behind. It was as sweet as it was simplistic, going viral for its unashamed enthusiasm for something most of us had long forgotten existed. Her descriptions, basic as they may be, of dining with her mum, enjoying her company and a dessert, are what linger in my memory. It's the exact experience my heart will be screaming for when it's no longer possible.

In the immortal words of the author: "Overall, our high anticipations of Pizza Express were met. 7 out of 10."

@joe_bish