Juliet Jacques | On Pizza | Factory+ (2024)

All views expressed are that of the writer.

Like many children of my generation (I suspect) I first became aware of pizza from watching Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles. By that time – 1990 – pizza had been available here for over a century – Francesco Cambrena opened London’s first pizzeria in 1875, and by the 1950s, there were 200 similar restaurants across the UK, mostly opened by Italian immigrant families. The first chain opened in 1965 when Peter Boizot, who had fallen for the food while living in Rome, brought an oven from Naples and a chef from Sicily to open the first Pizza Express, in Soho. Pizza Hut followed in Islington eight years later, opening a branch in the UK once a week (on average) by 1987.

Unlike burgers and pies, which were apparently proletarian, pizza did not seem to have obvious class connotations, with the two big chains targeting different demographics. Pizza Hut pushed itself as the popular choice, with a famous advertisem*nt featuring Stuart Pearce, Chris Waddle and Gareth Southgate – who all missed vital penalties in shoot-outs for England in tournament semi-finals – before the more intellectual one with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1998, which gave the impression of the food, and Pizza Hut in particular, conquering hitherto unimaginable parts of the world. Pizza Express was the more middle-class option, with an ostensibly healthier menu with less grease and more salad, a jazz club affiliated to its famous Wardour Street branch. (This was epitomised by their Leggera pizza, in which the heart was removed and replaced with green leaves – which I took as an affront, then and now.)

I do know about and approve of the “pizza effect” of one country taking another country’s dish, changing it (in this case, the Americans adding cheese to the Italian combination of bread and tomato) and exporting it back.

It still seemed like a foreign food, Italian or Italian-American, at that point, but how you read it depended on who you were. If you were part of the Pizza Express set, it was Italian; for the Pizza Hut and TMNT crowd, it was American, with the differing class, cultural and even political connotations that implied. Either way, by the turn of the millennium, pizza was firmly established as my favourite meal, and as a central part of the UK’s burgeoning fast food scene.

I was never that keen on either – there was no Hut nor Express in my petit bourgeois hometown of Horley, Surrey, and when I went to university in Manchester, I preferred to buy from Pizza Champion, the takeaway opposite my halls in Fallowfield. I usually went for the simple options – pepperoni, Hawaiian, or plain old margarita. It was cheap and had the best taste-to-effort ratio – important to me, having spent chunks of my loan on skunk. By then, I was also a connoisseur of frozen pizza, enough so to feel personally insulted when a newspaper round-up of basic supermarket options rated the Co-operative ones down for having too much sugar. (Admittedly, I went to the Co-op not for the taste but out of a vague sense that ethically, it was the right thing to do.) My flatmates mocked my eating habits, perhaps fairly, but I eventually got validation from an old Labour hero of mine – in 2007, The Guardian reported that Tony Benn ate two frozen Chicago Town pizzas every day. I liked the sentiment, if not the pizza itself.

Juliet Jacques | On Pizza | Factory+ (1)

I understood that this cheap, lazy option had its counterpart in the laborious but more rewarding process of making your own pizza (which I could never be bothered to do) or going to classier independent Italian restaurants or pizzerias. However, it was only when I moved from Brighton to London in the 2010s that I realised just how many different types of pizza had proliferated while I’d been subsisting off the Co-op’s offerings and the occasional local takeaway. I don’t know the difference between Neapolitan, Roman or Sicilian, nor between New York, Chicago or Detroit pizza, in terms of their ingredients, cooking or background, let alone what a preference for any would say about me as a person, but I do know about and approve of the “pizza effect” of one country taking another country’s dish, changing it (in this case, the Americans adding cheese to the Italian combination of bread and tomato) and exporting it back. I’m always keen to try any national take on pizza, be it Turkish, Lebanese or, on my most recent trip abroad, Bulgarian. More than being struck by the dizzying array of recipes and toppings (I am resolutely pro-pineapple, and won’t touch anchovies), I’ve been struck by the food’s versability, which allows it to be sold almost anywhere: frozen or fresh, equally popular as an eat-in, takeaway or delivery meal, a staple on menus from low-rent kebab shops to firmly bourgeois restaurants. It can be marketed as a quick, convenience food or a gourmet meal, with most supermarkets often offering two tiers of readymade options; it can be sold as the product of small rural families, or as the height of metropolitan cool; it can be associated with years of tradition or (as in one of my favourite London spots, the now-defunct Radio Alice in Clapham) with fervent left-wing radicalism.

In hindsight, it seems surprising that it took people decades, if not centuries, to realise just how versatile is the combination of bread, tomato and cheese.

In some ways, pizzerias, and especially those American-style outlets selling pizza by the slice, became a symbol of the ‘hipster’ and, in some cases, a symptom of gentrification. The queues for Voodoo Ray – a restaurant selling New York-style pizza mainly by the slice – in Dalston on a Friday night were as big as those at Shoreditch’s old 24-hour beigel shops. (When I lived there, I would always go on a Monday’s half-price night and buy two slices for dinner.) Just through my favourite pastime – going to the football – I notice its meanings continue to shift, yet strangely stay the same: at the ‘hipster’ club Dulwich Hamlet, it’s the downmarket alternative to their gourmet souvlakia; at a less trendy club like Port Vale, in Stoke-on-Trent, getting singles slices from Pizza Hut at the match seems like a novel alternative to pies and burgers, I still buy from the Co-op a lot, but being a bit less broke than I was twenty years ago, tend more towards their ‘Irresistible’ ‘Wood Fired’ option than their low-budget stone-baked range, and prefer London’s Yard Sale or Icco to any of the chains if I’m getting a takeaway or delivery. I’ll try almost anything, though, and eat almost anything if I’m desperate: in any town or city, at any time of day or night, in almost any setting, and in a seemingly infinite variety of forms, I can get my favourite food. In hindsight, it seems surprising that it took people decades, if not centuries, to realise just how versatile is the combination of bread, tomato and cheese, but I’m eternally grateful that they did.

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Juliet Jacques | On Pizza | Factory+ (2024)
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