Editor's note: in December 2017 it was reported in the Evening Standard that there was a legal dispute ongoing between Semani Ltd, who run the Stoke Newington London franchise, and Da Michele in Naples, who have licensed their name to the restaurant. Another branch with a different franchise owner has since opened in Baker Street.
This is the first London branch of a well-known pizzeria in Naples of the same name (there is also a branch in Tokyo, and another in Rome). The Naples was mothership opened by Michele Condurro in 1906 (though the Condurro family started serving deep-fried pizza on the street outside their home in 1870) and now resides in Via Cesare Sersale. The establishment is noted for its very limited menu of simply two pizzas: margherita and marinara, and was featured in the 2010 movie version of the book “Eat, Pray Love”.
I am not entirely sure why Stoke Newington was chosen for the London branch, but it duly opened in early February 2017 with considerable press fanfare and consequently lengthy queues of hopeful diners. The room is quite basic, with wood floor and tiny, packed tables. It seems that there is a further dining room upstairs. The large wood-fired pizza oven is visible from the main dining area, and can cook a pizza in under a minute at 500C.
Naturally enough, the pizza made here is the thin Naples style with a soft, bendy crust. The margherita uses tomato, cow’s milk mozzarella and basil. The marinara has just tomato, oregano and garlic, but no cheese (and no pesky foreign objects such as anchovies). Pizza from Naples these days has rules, laid down in an 11 page document by the “Associazone Verace Pizza Napoletana”, a sort of pizza guild. This template defines everything from the acceptable yeast to use, through to how long the dough should be mixed (twenty minutes) and even its pH level (5.87), the thickness of the base, the temperature of the over (at least 485C) and which varieties of tomatoes and mozzarella can be used. I am not sure as to how strictly the London Da Michele conforms to this rulebook, but doubtless they are very aware of it.
Anyway, the final product costs £7.90 for the margherita and £6.90 for the marinara, though you can ask for a “maxi” version of each. You can drink beer or choose from a limited section of just nine wines, ranging in price from £20.95 to £35.50. Examples were Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Rosso of unknown vintage at £22.95 compared to its retail price of £16, and Taurasi Radici at £35.50 compared to its shop price of about £29, so it can seen that wine mark-ups are very moderate indeed.
At present Da Michele is proving very popular, but takes no reservations, so the first problem is planning your visit around the queue. I went for lunch, which notionally begins at noon, and since I live a long way from N16 I played it safe and got to the restaurant at 11:20 to be certain of getting in– other people started arriving at 11:30, and after a few more minutes the queue was lengthy. I was puzzled when at just before noon a formidable lady turned up with some children, knocked on the door and spoke to one of the staff in Italian, entirely ignoring the people in the queue. Being English I tried to ignore this, but she duly barged in and was seated in a prime spot by the staff – perhaps she was “connected” to the owners. This was presumably less than amusing to those towards the back of the line, who had been waiting patiently and some of whom did not get a seat.
As it happened I had a time-critical engagement to head to after this lunch, but was unconcerned since I was after all first in the queue and the pizzas take literally a minute to cook. However the numerous waiters and managers, once they had seated people and turned away others, showed little apparent interest in taking any orders for some time. Instead they chatted to each other in a huddle near the pizza oven.
Finally two waiters ventured out and gave their undivided attention to the lady who had barged in, while other diners were entirely ignored for a bit longer. Eventually a waiter wandered over in my direction, and his seemingly complete absence of knowledge of the English language was hardly an issue in a place with just two pizzas on offer. So I pointed at the margherita on the menu, waited, chatted to some charming people I had met in the queue outside, and waited some more. However after half an hour no pizzas had appeared, except to the party with the lady speaking Italian who had jumped the queue. Finally a few more orders appeared in a sporadic and seemingly entirely random sequence, none of which was mine. After some attempt at inquiring after to the well-being of my margherita a manageress explained that doubtless my order was taken much later than the others (nope) and that it would turn up at some point. Indeed it did, precisely one hour after I had sat down in the dining room. With soft drinks the bill came to £12.90, and even with some wine the bill would be pretty modest, maybe £25 a head.
After all that, what was the pizza actually like? Well dear reader, it was pleasant. The crust was thin and pliable, the tomatoes had good flavour and there were a couple of basil leaves as advertised. However it did not compare well to the pizzas that I have tried at the Santa Maria or Sacro Cuore restaurants, and frankly it did not seem as good as those prepared at Franco Manca when they are having a good day. Of course it is pretty inexpensive, and perhaps my expectations were simply too high.
What I can say with complete certainty is that i have never seen a more shambolic service organisation in a restaurant. There were plenty of staff but despite a grand total of just two product offerings they seemed almost entirely incapable of serving the modest number of diners who had squeezed into the room. Waiting one hour for a pizza in these circumstances seems simply ludicrous to me. Perhaps I should have prayed, since I barely ate and I am afraid that I did not love.