Franco Manca is one of those places on the list I've been meaning to check out, but I've never got around to making the Pilgrimage to Electric Road in Brixton to try the award-winning sourdough slices.
All my foodie friends rave about it, so I was delighted to be invited to the launch of a sister restaurant in leafy Chiswick, minutes from my flat. Why the invite featured a picture of a young Margaret Thatcher shoving a pizza into a brick oven remains a mystery. Perhaps she's a loyal patron?
Pizza is taken so seriously in Italy, they have set up the equivalent of a wine AOC, the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, to maintain standards. For a pizza to make the grade, dough must be allowed to rise for a minimum of six hours. Franco Manca leave it for nearly a day.
Rocking up to the restaurant on Chiswick High Road, the place was buzzing with gesticulating Italians. A band of middle-aged mafioso types wearing open shirts and gold medallions belted out jittery jazz, while plates of mini pizzas circulated.
The brainchild of Neapolitan Giuseppe Mascoli, Franco Manca's secret weapon is its wood-burning Tufae brick oven. The eight ton beast cooks pizzas at a scorching 500 degrees for a mere 40 seconds, giving the crusts the perfect balance of crispiness and chewiness. Olives come from Spain, while the Chorizo is sourced closer to home, from London-based Spanish deli Brindisa. The tomatoes, of course, are from Italy, and the house lemonade is made from Amalfi lemons.
Wine comes courtesy of Ottavio Rube, owner of the Valli Unite cooperative in Piedmont. Rube runs a self-sustained vineyard that produces a range of organic, non-sulphite wines. He had flown in for the launch. Tall and wide, with a mop of shaggy blond hair and huge hands, he looked like he'd arrived by way of Middle Earth.
He didn't speak a word of English, but my friends and I raised a glass to his impressive Barbera 2006. It had an opulent nose of rich black cherry, vanilla and smoke. Super dry with racing acidity, the palate was soft, rich and delicious. A 2009 red made from Nebbiolo and Dolcetto also did the rounds, along with a refreshing Cortese.
Suddenly, plates of pizza began to emerge from the kitchen. The waitress bypassed the party people and plonked it in front of an ancient guy who looked like he'd just stepped off the set of the Godfather. We looked on with envy. Why did he get his own pizza and not us? A few of his flat cap wearing friends pulled up a chair and pulled off a slice.
We soon got a slice of the action, as a siege of pizza-filled plates started flying out of the kitchen. Fresh, chewy and juicy, it was dangerously moorish. I managed five slices, stopping before any buttons burst. Surprisingly, the Chiswick branch haven't put their prices up – pizzas range from £4.50 to £6.80 and a 125ml glass of wine only costs £1.80. I have no idea why Mascoli chose Chiswick, but I just might have found my new favorite haunt.