Let us salute fair Salina and Slaithwaite. The former, a volcanic Aeolian island reached by hydrofoil from Sicily, the latter a moorland mill town on the main line between Manchester and Leeds. Each has offered creative refuge to master pizzaiolos, who’ve helped shape the culinary landscape of toppings on dough.
The cases of Giuseppe Mascoli and Jim Morgan provide a romantic backdrop to the big business that pizza has become. This relatively affordable treat that, post-pandemic, prospers while other High Street rivals go under.
Proof of the desirability of UK pizzeria chains is the expansion of the original Neapolitan-inspired destinations created by Amalfi Coast raised Giuseppe and Huddersfield Town fan Jim. Only last month shareholders in Franco Manca and sister brand The Real Greek (70 and 27 outlets respectively) approved a £93.4m takeover by a Japanese noodle conglomerate. Giuseppe had long extricated himself from the brand he created – ‘best pizza in London’ – to live the good life on Salina, making wine on the island he fell ion love with while sourcing the perfect capers for his burgeoning restaurants.
Meanwhile, since being taken over by hospitality operator Mission Mars (of Albert’s Schloss fame) Rudy’s has opened 17 sites across Britain. The latest, its sixth in Manchester where it all started, incorporates a pizza academy to stretch the skills of staff. In truth, I’d rather learn the secrets of ‘the one true pizza’ at the elbow of Jim in his smart new venture, Anello, in a converted library in Yorkshire’s Slaithwaite (pronounced Slow-it).
It’s all a far cry from the sensation back in 2005 when Giuseppe, a former LSE lecturer, took pizza back to its Neapolitan roots in the Afro-Caribbean enclave that was Brixton Market. Queues snaked around the block to get a slice of the authentic action. The key? A sourdough foundation naturally leavened for 24 hours under the watchful eye of baker friend Bridget Hugo. Ditto 10 years later in the new foodie frontier of Ancoats when Jim’s research pilgrimages to the pizza cafes off the Spaccanapoli finally paid off for him and pioneer partner Kate Wilson. Their shoestring project was named after their pet dog Rudy. Franco Manca’s monicker was equally quirky. Giuseppe took over the original 1986 business from one Franco, honouring him in perpetuity. ‘Manca’ in Italian means missing.
So does the pair’s purist pizza legacy linger on?
It’s so easy to yell ‘sell-out’ or ‘pale shadow’ as a treasured one-off becomes ostensibly more corporate. Franco Manca, with three outlets in Manchester, certainly talks the talk still, emphasising the scrupulous attention to sourcing, the long proving (ie rising) of the dough in-house each day, even focusing the brief wine list on organic production.
I’d not been to the King Street branch before one gusty, wet Manchester lunchtime at odds with the searing inferno of the ‘Old Country’ currently. The welcome was as warm as the decor. Prices, even of specials on the boards, were eminently reasonable, one of the great selling points in London.
Contrast with L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele (self-proclaimed world’s best pizza) 60 metres away across the Cross Street tramlines. I’ve not been back since it made its grand entrance 18 months ago, but the experience was odd – service wobbly, setting eye-numbingly neon and prices high (even though the pizza quality was decent). Da Michele had become a global brand, from the humble yet Instagrammable original in Naples that had inspired Jim Morgan in his quest. Still it may have learned its lesson. I’ve just checked the latest menu and the cost of a Margherita that was then £9.95 has now been reduced to a fiver.
What does strike you immediately at Franco Manca is the menu avoids the classic pizza names – Margherita, Marinara, Cappriciosa and the like. Instead they are numbered 1 to 10. It mirrors an eclectic attitude to provenance. The Pivetti organic 00 flour may hail from near Bologna, tomatoes from Campania and Salina supplies benchmark capers, but the MSC certified tuna and the anchovies are sourced from Cantabria in Northern Spain, while the mozzarella still comes from Somerset. Why? Because Giuseppe (the opposite of sloppy in his thinking) persuaded his friend Albino Scalzitti to move there from the southern Italian Apennines to ensure a fresher supply line. Somerset’s native Ogleshield and Montgomery’s Cheddar also feature on the same shopping list, but no English wines. In the trademark tumblers Italy rules.
Giuseppe’s main legacy remains the sourdough starter. Acquired from a Naples bakery, its wild yeast-driven magic dates back to the 18th century. In contrast we were there to road test the very latest pizzas on the Franco Manca menu. Hearty starters of beef ragù al forno with mozzarella and aubergine parmigiana were buttresses against that traitor of a summer day outside, but the pizzas were the going to be the acid test. They actually do one with a ragù topping, which is as wrong as pineapple.
We both chose pizzas without any tomato involved. Mine (No.10 for £10.95) had an undertow of wild broccoli pesto. Cime di rapa? Friarelli? Or Calabrese? I should have asked. On top of this came mozzarella and grana padano cheese with a substantial crumbling of fennel sausage. The latter was rather lovely but my on a whim extra topping of nduja was a bad idea. The famed base had that billowing chewiness I expected and liked, but as the cheese cooled it all felt a touch congealed.
Pizza No.9 across the table was the true triumph of the visit. a glorious £11.25 worth. Mozzarella, fresh basil, wild mushrooms and burrata all given an earthy kick by a truffle pesto base. Big flavours but a herby Sicilian Syrah held its own beautifully. Overall a fine experience. Fingers crossed this admirable brand has fallen into safe hands.
Franco Manca, 37-43 King St, Manchester M2 7AT. There are also branches in the city in Piccadilly Gardens and at the Trafford Centre. Open every day.
Slaithwaite has always meant dough to me over the past few years. The town’s Handmade Bakery has been a key foodie pioneer as a townscape of industrial dereliction has transformed into one of those Sunday Times’ Coolest Places To Live. You can commute in either direction to Leeds or Manchester, albeit subject to the unfit for purpose vagaries of Transpennine Express. For Jim Morgan, whose dad had ties with Handmade, it was a case of coming home. On our visit Kate was absent – on childcare duties. Otherwise, it all felt like Rudy’s 2023. With new strings to their bow on the way. As well as acquiring a talented chef, Tom McManus, from the sadly missed Moorcock across the hills they have also taken that gastropub’s epic outside grill.
They are setting this up a mile and half down the A62 at their mates Zapato Brewery, who provide Anello’s crisp house table beer, Pinto de Pico. Tom was away on holiday in Greece when we dropped into what feels almost like an Ancoats out-rider. You can feel his influence on a range of small plates that complement the Marinaras and Margheritas emerging from the truly serious pizza oven. Cue picture of a lad wielding long paddle.
As you’d expect they source leaves and veg from a local plot and the organic flour is from Shipton Mill, but tomatoes and fior di latte mozzarella are imported from Campania. Arancini was splendid but an £11 dish of porchetta disappointed, not least because the broad beans hadn’t been double-podded.
The pizzas? Marvellous. Not least because of that slow-raised dough. More echt Neapolitan than Franco Manca’s, softer and more digestible. The toppings were more traditional but then Anello, like the original Rudy’s, doesn’t aim to re-invent the wheel. Just replicate the perfection of Old Naples.
Their pizza oven was built for them in that turbulent city – by the Acunto family, who have a history of making pizza ovens stretching back 125 years. According to Jim: “Once fired up to 450C, the pizza takes just 60 seconds to cook. This intensity and speed of cooking creates a wonderful freshness to the pizza with enticing aromas, flavourful charring and a tenderness to the dough unusual with other types of pizza.”
Agreed. So to all those renegade purveyors of Roman, New York, Detroit, Chicago and, abomination, Hawaiian Pizza there’s a Neapolitan expression especially for you: “Vafanapoli! (ps it’s very rude).
Anello, 8 Britannia Road, Slaithwaite, Huddersfield HD7 5HG, 01484 841720, Open Wednesday to Sunday.