Lucy Tomlinson scopes out Levenshulme's hyped new pizza pop-up
What’s the least Christmassy food you can think of? Pizza? Wrong! It turns out that the very first mention of pizza is in a Latin text that specifies that the Bishop of Gaeta was to receive twelve pizzas every Christmas Day, lucky chap. The text is silent on whether it was Deliveroo’d or he had to go and pick it up himself.
With this festive theme in mind I gathered my fellow wise men (actually husband and four-year-old) and followed the star to the East where it rested above a little town called Levenshulme.
My snowy quest was inspired by a message from an angel, or in this case, my editor. He’d heard that a pop-up in Levy was doing the best pizza in the whole of Manchester. The gospel in question? A tweet from Luke Cowdrey, the DJ turned operator behind Volta, Electrik and The Refuge:
Cibus is Latin for food and is pronounced cheebus (to rhyme with Baby Jesus, nativity fans). The head chef is from Venice and claims via social media: 'there must be something in the water that makes it taste so good', while showing a gif of a gondolier on a canal. I sincerely hope they are not using canal water as a secret ingredient, but I do love Venetian cuisine. Like other regional Italian food it is steeped in tradition, but also benefits from a cheekiness (and occasional downright oddness) that the others don't, with influences from the Tyrol and much further afield to its abundance of seafood.
The first sign of this is in the 'nibbles' section of the menu which is definitely eclectic. It all looks good so I half-jokingly state “order the lot” as I dash downstairs to get the drinks in (Cibus is a pop-up with no drinks service, so you have to get it from Fred’s downstairs). When I come back I find that my request has been taken literally and dishes are already starting to arrive. At £3 a go it feels ok to indulge.
Let’s start with my favourite, the curried onion petals (which is simply a more romantic name for fried wedges of onion); the pungent flavour softened and sweetened by cooking with a crisp, fragrant coating soothed with a yoghurt dip. Phenomenal. The bruschetta (tomato and mushroom) are also solid examples of the genre, while the calamari was a holiday classic.
I’d been excited by the broad bean croquettes and was disappointed to find them a bit stodgy and bland, though the accompanying chilli sauce certainly brought them back to life.
Opinion was divided on the salted doughnuts with either pesto mayo or crispy onions and marinara sauce. My partner was very into them and called them “the evolution of doughballs”. I think that’s like saying chickens are the evolution of dinosaurs. Certainly I would eat a pile of them when drunk (salted doughnuts not dinosaurs, unless I was really hammered), but you could say that about a fair few things without it being a huge endorsement.
Now to the pizzas themselves: do they live up to the hype? My answer has to be a frustratingly equivocal yes…and no. Let me explain.
My normal pizza test dish is a margarita. For me this is the queen of pizzas, the beauty is in the simplicity. Just thin, crisp crust, hot, savoury tomato, melting mozzarella and, if you are pushing the gondolier out, a basil leaf or two. Bliss. However on this occasion the youngest diner had bagged the margarita (£5), my other half was on the quattro formaggio (£6.50), so I felt I had to go wild and order the jerk chicken (£7) which was against all my better instincts.
When I bit into it I could tell the DNA was fabulous; amazing crust that snapped at the edges but folded in the middle, pools of decent mozzarella melting and stringing just so... but in the end the jerk chicken was just too theme-y for me. “It’s a bit Asda” my partner observed, and for once I had to agree with him.
I tried a sneaky bite or three of the margarita and it was as good as I hoped it would be. If you think that cheese and tomato pizza is just a wee bit boring then we will have to respectfully agree to disagree. Luckily the menu caters for both worldviews, wrong as yours might be.
As for the puddings, we had a lemon polenta cake (£4) that was nicely acidic (if a little on the dry side) and an apple strudel (£4), which as a typically Tyrolese dessert actually fits right in with the Italians off-piste feel of the menu.
While I can get as nerdy about my pizza as the next girl, I can also be shockingly disrespectful. I’m talking leftover breakfast pizza. I know I’m supposed to be breaking my fast on an acai smoothie bowl or smashed avo toast or something like that, but sometimes only reheated take-out will do. The Cibus folk were very good about packing up our leftovers (unlike some places which charge to box it up) and we left bearing gifts that stood up very well to such treatment the next day.
So who has won the pizza wars? It’s too early to tell. Cibus is definitely up there with Rudy’s and Honest Crust in my book. I’d have to eat around the menu a bit more to come to a firm conclusion, but at these very sensible prices that's hardly going to be a problem.
Cibus Pizza (above Fred’s Alehouse), 843 Stockport Road, Levenshulme M19 3PW. Tel: 0161 221 0297.
All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidential and completely independent of any commercial relationship. Venues are rated against the best examples of their type: 1-5: saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9: Netflix and chill, 10-11: if you're passing, 12-13: good, 14-15: very good, 16-17: excellent, 18-19: pure class, 20: cooked by God him/herself.
Broad bean croquettes 5, salted doughballs 6, onion petals 8, bruschetta 6, calamari 7, jerk chicken pizza 6, margarita 9, polenta cake 6, strudel 6
Lovely, and the staff downstairs at Fred’s are great as well