I pepperonly have eyes for you

BPL 427 1 August 2019

Pizza afficionadough Stacey Black tucks her napkin into her collar and helps herself to a slice at Franco Manca

A big chain toughing it out alongside small independent eateries in Bristol is no small feat, but London-based pizzeria Franco Manca has managed it for the past 18 months now. Starting out in Brixton market well over a decade ago, the chain has now grown to 40 branches across the UK. So, with high hopes and a grumbly belly I made my way to the Clare Street chapter. 

This large and attractive building stands on the corner of Clare Street, its huge white- lettered signage commanding attention from above its smart canopied entrance. Going for the cool and industrial look inside – complete with exposed pipes and brickwork – this place is slick but unfussy. The restaurant is furnished mostly with small tables geared towards two or three diners, but with a few larger tables for bigger parties. My friend and I chose a table by the window where we could keep an eye on the open-plan kitchen, which at 6.30pm was already buzzing with action. Our helpful server was right over with menus in hand and ready to answer any questions we had about the food. 

Even though it was a scorching July evening outside, I decided against my usual frosty beer and instead chose a glass of the house rosé, while my friend went for the red. Arriving in squat but sizable little tumblers, the wine was organic, juicy and just dry enough – exactly how I like it. The pizza menu is only seven items long, but with a nice set of small bites, sides and salads to choose from, diners have the option to create quite a hefty meal for themselves. 

Being an old pro at pizza-eating, I decided I’d keep my starters light so I’d have more room for the main event. Even though I was seriously tempted by the pizza bread with rosemary and sea salt, I chose a portion of Nocellara olives instead. Mammoth, meaty and buttery, these did the trick and the two of us made short of work of them while chatting over the delicious wine. 

There has been a sharp rise in demand for sourdough, and when made correctly, there’s nothing more delectable than a bite of this tangy and chewy bread. It should have its own flavour, and when topped with fresh ingredients, it can be simply divine. The best-quality sourdough pizzas take literally seconds to cook in a blisteringly hot oven, which is music to the ears of a constantly hungry person like myself. 

Sourdough pizza is obviously a serious business here, and each kind of pie has been designed to show off this flavoursome base. The options range from a super-simple tomato, garlic and oregano, to cured natural and Iberco chorizo and mozzarella.

It’s worth noting that all branches offer a vegan special, and being a plant-based pipsqueak myself, this is the pizza I chose. This month’s offering was tomato-based, topped with olives, capers, mint, vegan cheese and sliced potatoes. Double carbs. I was in heaven! 

So big it was hanging over my dinner plate, and with a suitably blackened crust billowing high above the authentic-looking melty cheese, it certainly looked delicious. The dough was as I’d hoped – chewy, and with a slight bitterness to it that worked nicely with the almost- sweetness of the tomato sauce. 

I could eat olives in anything, and these had been cooked just long enough for their deep purple skins to wrinkle. The capers added a pungent kick, while the sliced potatoes retained a pleasing bite. The fresh mint leaves were an inspired addition, and I’ll certainly be adding this to my creations when I dust off my pizza stone at home. The plant-based cheese was probably the closest thing to dairy I’ve had in a while, and this can be substituted to any pizza for free. I began with a knife and fork, and ended up using my hands to shovel the whole thing in my mouth, slice by slice. A fresh mixed salad was a tasty side, but really, I was here for the dough. 

Going for something meaty, my friend chose Alfonso’s No. 7 – spicy lamb sausage, tomatoes from Gragnano, roasted aubergine, mozzarella and wild garlic pesto. This is a white pizza, which means that tomato sauce is eschewed for melty mozzarella. My friend assured me that no tomato was actually needed as all the ingredients worked amazingly well together, and everything tasted as vibrant as it looked. The lamb sausage had just the right amount of spice, while the bold pesto did its best not to dominate the seasoned meat. Softly roasted aubergines and tomatoes gave what could be a pretty dense pizza a bit of welcome freshness, and the crust was similarly savoury and delicious. 

One day I’ll get the hang of this reviewing thing and deliberately leave room for dessert, but until then, I’ll continue to overindulge. I know that some people can be a bit snippy about eating out at a chain restaurant, but good food is good food, and this spot can take its place among a thriving fellowship of pizzerias. My pizza puns can’t be topped. And neither can the pizza at Franco Manca, whichever way you slice it. 

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