“Don’t worry about me. I’m not gonna be slinging pizza for the rest of my life.” Little did Julia Roberts realise in her movie breakthrough, 1988’s Mystic Pizza, that that line might come back to haunt her. Flash forward to Manchester 2022 and you’ll find the veteran Hollywood star up in lights at the city’s latest topped dough emporium, L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele.
A bit of a mouthful to follow Zizzi – the previous Italian incarnation squatting in this palatial Edwardian bank building – but then so is the Napoletana in front of me. A huge and hugely satisfying mouthful from a springy, chewy base to an intense but measured topping of tomato, basil, Agerola fior di latte, Cetar anchovies, capers and oregano. ‘The greatest pizza in the world’ as the Da Michelebrand pushers proclaim? Up there, maybe, but it was rapidly cooling as it arrived at table from a distant oven and stone cold by half way through. That wouldn’t have been acceptable back in Naples, where the original pizzeria of this name has forged its reputation against fierce competition for over 130 years.
Matt Goulding, in his fascinating exploration of Italian cuisine, Pasta, Pane, Vino, details the competitive zeal of the city’s pizzaioli and their commitment to their way of making arguably the world’s finest fast food.
And there is an argument, as he writes: “Neapolitan pizza may be the original form of pizza as we know it today, but for some – for those who like their pizza with textural contrast, who don’t consider pizza a knife and fork proposition – it doesn’t always deliver. Neapolitan pizza can be a violent enterprise – the high temperatures, the aggressive blistering, the miasma of cheese and sauce and rendered fat that leaves the centre of a pizza almost empty. The resulting pizza is relentlessly soft, yielding, fickle, unforgiving. It is a game of centimetres and seconds – the difference between a subpar pizza and a superlative one is a blink of an eye in the mouth of the oven.”
Julia Roberts only entered the Da Michele story just over a decade ago when she reprised her pizza schtick, starring in Eat Pray Love as globe-trotting seeker after self Elizabeth Gilbert, who falls head over heels for the modest restaurant on the Via Cesare Sersale, declaring she was “having a relationship with her pizza.” This someway explains critic Mark Kermode’s four word summary of the movie: “Eat, Pray, Love, vomit”.
On a wall of the new King Street branch a golden scrawl of the film’s title shares billing with a still of Julia scoffing a slice and there’s also further gush in pink neon: “I want someone to look at me the same way I look at pizza”, which is not up there with my fave doughy quote: “The perfect lover is one who turns into a pizza at 4am.”
All of which diverts from the big da Michele question: Why here, now?
I saw ample evidence on a trip to Naples of how popular the original is, with its strong local fanbase bolstered by the tourist traffic generated by Gilbert’s book and the film. You have to book a slot to gain entrance to a very basic venue. Averse to queuing, I surveyed the gathering crowds from across the square as I enjoyed a Margherita in theatrically themed rival Trianon da Ciro. It was excellent, only bettered by the plate overlapping monster at De Matteo on the Via dei Tribunali.
At all three venues you’d pay around six euros for a classic Margherita; in Manchester they charge £9.90 for this basic topping of tomato, basil and mozzarella, rising to nearly double that price for more elaborate toppings. No pizzas at Manchester’s acclaimed Rudy’s cost over a tenner, while their cocktails are each three quid cheaper that at Da Michele, where for six quid you get just the one arancino as a starter (we asked).
My Napoletana, generously topped though it was, felt steep at £12.90. Not as steep as the accompanying 250ml glass of (excellent) Badioli Chianti Riserva for £15.90, which I estimate is a 400 per cent mark-up on store prices.
Strangely, when I sought to double check our bill the online menu didn’t run to prices. I wanted to register how much the wagyu steaks cost as well as the pastas, salads and desserts that join the 13-strong pizza roster that climaxes in a wagyu burger version. Above are dishes of tuna tartare and truffle ravioli, both pretty dishes but they scream Italian restaurant staple grafted onto the original Da Michele selling point
In the Naples restaurant they have proudly served only two types of pizza – Margherita and Marinara (the one without the cheese).
The decision to expand the brand globally has also vastly expanded the menu. A constant among the pizzas is a predominant use of Agerola fior di latte cow’s milk mozzarella and soy bean oil over buffalo mozzarella and olive oil. Was this the formula from the start, five generations ago? The leavening and kneading nous created by Michele Condurro has surely never been tampered with.
My research shows me that the first L’Antica Pizzeria launched over here in Stoke Newington followed the two pizzas only template but that split to trade under a new name (and presumably new ownership) when branches in Soho and Baker Street appeared. All a bit vague. Neither setting comes near the high-ceilinged grandeur of 43 King Street, much of the current style inherited from the unlamented Zizzi but with some odd tweaks.
My eyes may have deceived me, but they appear to have replaced Zizzi’s dove grey upholstery with a dusty pink version. A more strident pink decor, in many swirling shades, helps the bar dominate the front of the room. Pink is definitely the colour of the moment in the city.
It’s good (in an ironic way) to see restaurant trees are making a comeback. Zizzi scatted some gaunt saplings scattered around the dining space but they have been replaced by two ‘flourishing’ white artificial specimens, which forge a kind of glitzy symmetry with the vast dangling chandelier. It almost makes up for the inexorable deforestation of Manchester’s restaurant scene. Long gone the giant steel tree of Sakana, so too the more modest shrub inside Mr Cooper’s House and Garden in the Midland Hotel refurb. Still indelibly etched into Spinningfield’s Tattu, though, is its colourful dried cherry blossom tree. That matches its pan-Asian cuisine. Olive trees might have been a more authentic fit for Da Michele. Or maybe not.
This brand expansion, which includes the USA, all seems a case of spreading it a bit thin once again. Remember the one true Harry Ramsden in Guiseley or The Ivy in London’s theatreland before all the cloning began? Now everywhere. Or on a less iconic level, take the original indie Real Greek launching in Hoxton in 1999. We eventually got a chain version in Manchester last year, joining its corporate stablemate Franco Manca. That does pizza, too, and they’ve got rivals seemingly on every corner. Sourdough, New York style, Detroit, Chicago deep dish, vegan and all the rest (sadly now minu our homegrown stalwart, the original Croma). You takes yer pick. Never has choice felt more homogenised.
It all makes me yearn for the formica tables of old Napoli, where the pizzas conform and the people don’t. To quote Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend: “The plebs were us. The plebs were that fight for food and wine, that quarrel over who should be served first and better, that dirty floor on which the waiters clattered back and forth, those increasingly vulgar toasts.”
L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele, 53 King Street, Manchester M2 4LQ. 0161 204 7068.