Whilst recently riding a wave of successful dining choices, it seems I have allowed myself to become caught in some fey riptide whose sole concern is to drag me from one Italian restaurant to another. Though this has hardly been horrid, having now pulled me back in from beautiful Belgravia and washed me up in not-so-beautiful Brixton, I have become suspicious of this current’s intentions. But I decide once more to consign my fate to the fates or more verily, chowhounds, whose compelling recommendations have again proved persuasive.
Franco Manca is a relatively recent arrival on the Brixton restaurant scene, having opened in March this year. New owner, Neapolitan expat Giuseppe Macoli, has some big shoes to fill as this site was previously home to Eco and before that, much-loved Pizzeria Franco. He is determined, however, to establish Franco Manca – literally translated as Franco is missing/missed and a tribute to aforesaid Franco – in its own right by bringing with him a brand new concept: bona fide Neapolitan pizza made from organic, local ingredients.
This is no easy task as, believe it or not, there exists actual laws governing how authentic Neapolitan pizza is made. The Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (Association of Real Neapolitan Pizza) has laid down a strict set of stipulations that must be satisfied by anyone planning on producing the genuine article. Regulations include that the flour has to be type 0 or 00 (strong flour with high-protein content); the dough must be kneaded and formed by hand without using a rolling pin or other mechanical device; it must be baked at above 485°C in a wood-fired oven for no more than 90 seconds; and many more.
Such draconian measures have scared away lesser men, but Macoli is determined, focussed and, if early signs are anything to go by, very near to fulfilling his ambitions. However, being authentic is not enough; he also wants to be the best and so has recruited Neapolitan pizza and wild yeast expert, Marco Parente, as a fulltime consultant to create the perfect dough. Now, this critique has taught me a great deal about pizza including that the most important ingredient is the dough and the most vital element of this most important ingredient is the crescita (culture/starter/mother) i.e. the magical, living organism from which the sourdough grows. With this in mind, Parente procured a very special, very rare 200 year old culture from a secret source off the island of Ischia in the Gulf of Naples. This crescita has been combined with organic stone milled flour made mainly with Italian grains and is allowed a minimum of 20 hours to rise – consider this against the 4-6 hours that typical store-bought breads are speed-risen in. This may sound all well and good, but what it really means is that the friendly bacteria in the crescita does most of the hard work for you, breaking down the gluten in the flour, to produce a healthier, easier-to-digest pizza. So I can eat even more pizza before becoming too full, right? To ensure and achieve all this, FM has had two of its very own wood-fired, brick ovens and a dough mixer made by Forno Napoletano and imported especially from Naples.
Thus, the dough handled, Macoli reapplied his commitment to local quality onto cheeses, tomato sauce and toppings. He commissioned Alham Wood Farm of Somerset, one of only a few water buffalo farms in the UK, to produce fior di latte (cow milk mozzarella) and ricotta and even imported a master Neapolitan cheese-maker from Sorrento to help them churn out a better product. A refreshingly simple, but tasty tomato sauce is made from crushed peeled Italian tomatoes and a little salt; that’s it. Toppings are limited – eleven; I counted – but what is lacking in quantity is made up for in quality; ingredients are fresh, seasonal, almost 100% organic and the finest that can be found, whilst keeping prices competitive.
The restaurant itself, utterly unpretentious and spilling out into an already tight arcade alley, occupies opposing sides of the passage. Each side has one of those mammoth ovens, enabling one shop to operate as the actual pizzeria, whilst the other, already offering diners additional seating, is to be a bakery. The no-frills décor of old, solid oak benches and tables is modest, basic and practical, but adds rustic charm. Tightly packed tables and the constant Italian arguing (well, arguing to us, polite conversation in Italy) between an all Italian staff as they rush around complements the hustle-bustle and buzzing atmosphere. The similarly super-simple menu offers six pizzas served regular or as calzone, a side salad and beverages (organic lemonade/beer/wine and Monmouth espresso). I decided to try both a calzone No.3 and regular No.4 (each option being charmingly numbered).
Bevanda: Limonata. I aberrated from my usual tap water order – though filtered water is freely available – to try the legendary lemonade here. It is handmade, organic and tasted thick, refreshing and not at all sickly sweet. The dulled lemon flavour was not especially sour, but still zingy. The clear, pale tan juice is served in a quaint glass bottle with stopper and is a snip at £1 a bottle.
Calzone: No.3 – Wild mushrooms, garlic, anchovy & mozzarella. A picture is worth a thousand words, which is great as I am finding it impossible to do this incredible image justice. That is why I will try starting with the stunning smell first; it was a strong and comforting herby aroma of basil and hot bread. Lovely. The thin sourdough base and middle was fluffy and soft like a pillow bed for the oozing mozzarella and fresh tomato sauce. Its encasing edge or cornicione – according to Neapolitans, the most prized part of the pizza – is soft yet very slightly crisp and speckled with carefully charred little blissful blisters seductive in flavour. Normally, I would discard the crust as gratuitous carbs, but in this case that would be criminal; fleshy and tender and so moreish, I enjoyed every single bite. What cannot be seen in the photograph is the moist, warm filling within: sweet, soft caramelised, earthy mushrooms (porcini and chanterelle) were combined with salty anchovies and more of the tomato sauce to achieve an impressively rich, deep flavour. As accompaniments to the dishes, garlic and chilli oils were provided. I found the chilli rather impotent, but the garlic was surprisingly strong and absolutely perfect with the crescent calzone.
Pizza: No.4 – Tomato, garlic, oregano, capers, olives, anchovy & mozzarella. The pizza looked perfect: another gorgeous example of that airy, puffy golden cornicione was complemented with generous measures of molten mozzarella, rich tomato sauce and fresh, fat olives. The secret behind the delicious base is the intensely hot, intensely short baking, whereby the blistering heat seals in the toppings’ flavours and locks in the moisture of cornicione. This time, lovely oregano notes accompanied the warm odour of basil. The taste was just as good as the calzone’s: the yielding, chary crust flavourful; the base elastic yet easy-to-tear; the cheese milky and creamy; the sauce fresh; and the capers and anchovies intense and powerful. The hot, meaty olives, which come from a small Spainish finca that Macoli himself has helped finance, added texture and taste into the mix. The pizza was very light and the perfect size for one; even after eating two, I felt full, but not blown-up-like-a-balloon stuffed.
The food was great and, judging by the queues of customers outside waiting for a seat, many agree with me. I have already heard rumours that demand is so great, the restaurant will be moving to larger premises that will allow more flexible opening times (being within the Arcade means they have to shut when the arcade does). Indeed, Macoli deserves such success: the commitment he has shown to the strict conventions of Neapolitan pizza making is admirable and his dedication to quality, local production and ingredients is to be commended. However, both would be worthless (to me) if Franco Manca did not deliver, and deliver it does, in bucket loads.
I have long been disillusioned with pizza, seeing it as a commercial, carb-heavy atrocity of melted cheese and stodgy dough. This meal has dashed those preconceptions. Franco Manca is a real diamond in the rough (FM the diamond, Brixton the rough). Great tasting, simple food at amazing prices with good, friendly service; what more do you really need? Franco manca, ma Giuseppe è trovato.
4 Market Row, Electric Lane, SW9 8L
tel: 020 7738 3021
nearest tube: Brixton