Since I first wrote about Franco Manca over 2 years ago, the chain has boomed and grown from 10 outlets to 42. Most are in London but now some are outside the capital in places like Bournemouth, Brighton and Guildford. Giuseppe Mascoli opened his first Franco Manca in a small outlet in Brixton Market in 2008. It was such a success it fast became ‘the’ place to go for authentic Neopolitan pizza. Mascoli, a Neapolitan himself, was once an economics lecturer before deciding to bring the famous food of his home city of Naples to London and growing himself a small empire. In March 2015 he sold Franco Manca to Fulham Shore, who own a number of restaurant chains, for £27.5 million. However, back in Italy he’s now opened another Franco Manca on the little Aeolian island of Salina
What’s special about Franco Manca’s pizzas is their slow-rising sourdough base; the pizzas are then cooked in a wood burning oven at 500C. This blast of hot heat gives the perfect Neopolitan pizza: a soft, deep crust with a touch of charring on the outside. They source the best products to top their pizzas: Gloucester Old Spot sausage and ham, Iberico chorizo, dry San Marzano tomatoes (grown in the volcanic soil under Mount Vesuvius, they are thought by some to be the only tomatoes to be used on an authentic Neopolitan pizza,) wild broccoli and the finest mozzarella, which they make themselves daily in Somerset, overseen by a cheese maker from Southern Italy.
The menu is simple – there are 7 pizzas to choose from, and they’re numbered, not named. You can have extra toppings; there are 2 side salads to choose from and, if you don’t want pizza at all, 2 main salads. But basically it’s pizza … you really only go there to eat pizza. And the pizzas are fantastically priced for London, ranging from £4.95 for the classic marinara pizza, No.1, of Tomato, Garlic & Oregano to No.7 that comes with Dry San Marzano tomatoes, roasted potatoes, onions, mozzarella, Colston Bassett stilton and seasonal pesto at £8.15.
I often meet a friend at the Bloomsbury Curzon cinema just off Russell Square. Usually we see a film early and eat after. There’s not a great choice nearby and we’ve tended to go to Carluccio’s, but it’s not been so great recently. So, I looked up what else was nearby and found that a Franco Manca had opened there. Remembering that I had to queue for 35 minutes when I went to the South Kensington branch, I suggested we eat early before the 7.00pm showing of the film. We reckoned it would be easier to get a table then than after the film … and it was, though it filled up fast. You can’t book; only for 6 or more.
It’s all very minimal inside, stools at the tables rather than chairs. But it has that irresistible Italian sophistication that shines through even in the simplest of decor. So too did it have that wonderful Italian friendliness and charm. Everyone was very friendly, from our welcome, to food and drink coming to us with quick efficiency and a smile, to our leaving when the pizzaiolo called goodbye from his spot by the hot oven. It made us feel we’d definitely go back. My friend Nicola remarked how much she liked Italians, but then who couldn’t like Italians (even if they’re not all perfect!).
I chose No.5 pizza: Tomato, garlic, oregano, capers, olives, anchovies & mozzarella (£7.25).
It looked fabulous and it tasted fabulous. They’re big pizzas too. I also had a side salad: mixed salad leaves, alfalfa sprouts & Franco’s dressing (£2.45).
Nicola confessed that she’d had an unplanned pizza for lunch so decided to order a main salad instead: Butterhead lettuce & mixed salad leaves, alfalfa sprouts, British chicken, crispy Gloucester Old Spot bacon, caramelised onions, Cantarelli Grana & Franco’s dressing (£7.65).
She was very impressed. She said it was really good and very fresh. They hadn’t overdone the dressing and it tasted as if it had just been put together (which I’m sure it had!).
There were tempting desserts like Tiramisu, a Lemon Almond Cake, and Chocolate Hazelnut Cake for £3.95 but we stuck to coffee for me and peppermint tea for Nicola. We each also had a 175ml glass of Nero d’Avola red wine for £4.25 with the meal.
It was all excellent – food, ambience and service. The bill at £28 (£14 each) was excellent too. There’s always the worry when a good, innovative restaurant gets bought out by a giant company that they’ll lose that special edge that brought fame in the first place, and the food will become bland and uniform; that they’ll cut corners and standards will drop. But so far Franco Manca stays apparently the same as it ever was. And long may that last!