Chris Taylor tackles more food he can't handle and is reminded by pizza that he is old
They take pizza very seriously indeed in Naples. It’s treated with the pious reverence that only the most important things get: Catholicism, football, stretched out dough with tomato and various other toppings. On the streets of the Quartieri Spagnoli are posters bearing the legend SAY NO TO PINEAPPLE ON PIZZA - and as the home of pizza, they have every reason to take it seriously. How they must shudder when they see our awful bastardisations.
It’s like Pizza Express fucked Boujee on Bridge Street and their progeny then cosplayed as a Eurovision Barbie doll
Tucked away in a small square off Rettifilo, one of Naples’s main streets, is L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele. It is widely considered by pizza boffins the world over to be the very best there is. And without wanting to sound dramatic, it was a genuinely life-changing experience for me. My previous philosophy was that there’s no such thing as bad pizza. One (ok, three) pizzas from L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele later, and I now know there is only one good type of pizza, and all the rest is muck. So imagine my excitement when they opened a franchise in Manchester. My Manchester!
But then I saw it and my heart sank. Far from the no-frills experience of Naples, where the menu lists only two pizzas - each costing under a fiver, the restaurant housed in the former Zizzi’s on King Street had a big pink neon light on the wall saying I WANT SOMEONE TO LOOK AT ME THE WAY I LOOK AT PIZZA. There are also two plastic trees inside, and pink furniture, and velour, and Jesus Christ, it’s like Pizza Express fucked Boujee on Bridge Street and their progeny then cosplayed as a Eurovision Barbie doll. Somewhere on a dirty street in the south of Italy, a man gestures furiously while muttering under his breath.
But I can forgive a little bit of high camp if the food is good. And for the most part, it was.
The Arancino Napolitano (£7.50), a sort of sophisticated Italian scotch egg made from rice, came sat snugly in a bowl, nesting in a dollop of pomodoro sauce, topped with a sad-looking salad garnish. It arrived quickly enough to worry me, but the crispiness of the breadcrumb coating allayed fears of any rogue microwaving. The guts of the arancini were gooey and cheesy, but just as soon as you were getting into the experience, it was over. You expect a bit more for your £7.50.
Size was not an issue with the main, a typical Neapolitan dish called Pizza Fritta (£17.95). After WW2 there was a shortage of pizza ovens due to severe bomb damage, so wily locals made their pizzas, folded them over, and deep-fried them in oil. It arrived on a platter with some salad leaves thrown on as an afterthought, the chef correctly assuming that anyone ordering a deep-fried lump of cheese-filled dough would not be arsed about salad. It was there merely as a garnish, to draw the eye away from the enormous beast sat next to it.
The Pizza Fritta turned out to be more than a meal, it was a challenge, an obsessive quest. Like Ishmael trying to land Moby Dick, but if Moby Dick was a cross between a huge calzone and a Findus crispy pancake filled with carbonara sauce. And I need to stress I don’t see that as a bad thing.
It’s not just that it was big, it was incredibly dense, so dense a black hole would look at it and whisper “he could do with losing some weight” under its breath. I didn’t manage to finish it, and immediately texted my personal trainer to book in an extra session.
The Margherita (£14.50) is a true test of a pizzeria’s quality. Minimalist and rakish, the ingredients have to be of the highest quality to avoid a pizza as bland and tasteless as a new Ancoats luxury apartment development. With the acknowledgement that you will never be able to match an Italian pizza for freshness and flavour, the Margherita here was as good as you’ll get. A thin base, bubbled and burnt from the oven, a rich and tangy tomato sauce, and a cheesiness you wouldn’t get from just mozzarella thanks to their use of a mix of fior di latte and pecorino Romano.
“Would you like any desserts?” enquired my waiter. I stood up and swung for the maniac, ranting in tongues about the stupidity of that question having just eaten the best part of a kilo of deep-fried dough, cheese and pork.
No, course I didn’t, I did what any sane man would and ordered a tiramisu (£8.50). I was assured they are all made freshly on-site every morning, and my God it was good. Thick, silky cream with a perfectly balanced coffee flavour. Despite being made with mascarpone, it was almost refreshing after the cloying exhaustion of the Pizza Fritta.
There’s a lot of competition for good pizza in Manchester, particularly Neapolitan pizza. Da Michele stands up to them all in terms of food, but I’m confused as to why it’s so expensive. Yes, it’s on King Street, but with a comparable pizza costing roughly half the price at Rudy’s a short walk away, why would I, or anyone, choose Da Michele?
As much as I enjoyed the food, and the service was very friendly, something didn’t sit right with me about the whole experience. It occurred to me hours later that the whole experience left me feeling old. The decoration, the atmosphere, the clientele, the weird neon sign on the wall, the plastic blossom trees, the prices. I feel old every time I have to stand up or sit down, I don’t need a restaurant to remind me of this fact. It feels like a restaurant for the Instagram generation, where being seen to eat food is more important than actually eating it. Food as a meme. Here’s a pizza, tag yourself in and add a hashtag. And it’s a shame because despite it being an inauthentic franchise, the food is probably as good as you’ll get outside Campania, so long as you don’t mind paying way over the odds for it.
L'Antica Pizzeria da Michele, 53 King St, Manchester M2 4LQ
Follow Chris Taylor on Instagram @theitch1980
All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidentials 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.
Arancini Napolitano 7, Pizza Fritta 7, Margherita 8.5, Tiramisu 9
Friendly but scatty. More in keeping with the no-frills original than a £15 a pizza, swanky, King Street restaurant
A magnificent building festooned with garish and gauche pink and purple weirdness, with a loud Italian love ballad soundtrack. Bizarre.