The original Santa Maria in Ealing has now spawned two sister restaurants, Sacro Cuore in Kensal Rise and this latest outlet. Santa Maria Chelsea, which despite its name is more in Fulham than Chelsea, opened in April 2016. The co-owners of the group, Pasquale Chionchio and Angelo Ambrosio, are originally from Naples, arguably the home of the modern pizza. Perhaps the first true pizzeria was Antica Pizzeria Port'Alba in Naples, running as a pizzeria since 1830 and still going strong. With their background it is not surprising that Santa Maria is devoted to making Neopolitan style pizzas, which have a soft, pliable base. These days there is even a set of rules about what constitutes a Neapolitan pizza, laid down by the Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana of Naples (est 1984).
All this may reek of food geekery, but there is little doubt that the pizzas made at Santa Maria and its rival Franco Manca in Brixton market (now a chain) redefined what Londoners, used to the offerings of the Pizza Hut and Pizza Express chains, came to expect of a proper pizza. Denizens of the capital now expect something made with OO flour, kneaded by hand, with a thin base and cooked for no more than 90 seconds in a stone oven with an oak-wood fire. This is the kind of pizza that they make at Santa Maria.
The menu here focuses on the main event, but there are some nibbles and starters too. Bruschetta looked attractive and had good bread, with a decent kick of garlic, though the diced tomatoes had disappointingly little flavour. I suppose it was almost inevitable that I would feel let down, as just days ago I was eating dazzling quality Sicilian tomatoes in Milan at the wonderful two star Michelin Il Luogo di Aimo e Nadia, so this was never going to be an easy comparison. Even so, you can get better tomatoes in London than these (12/20). A rocket and tomato salad was decent, but the rocket was not of great quality, and although the dressing was well balanced the quality of the oil and balsamic vinegar was merely acceptable, certainly less good than the (admittedly high grade) ones I use at home when I make this same salad (11/20).
The pizzas themselves were excellent though. I tried a Santa Caterina (£8.95) with Naples salami, chillies, mozzarella, tomatoes and Parmesan. The toppings were quite good but the star was undoubtedly the pizza base, which had lovely texture and was just as it should be, soft and elastic with a hint of smoky flavour from the wood of the oven. I think the base tonight had a slight edge over those at rival Franco Manca, which I also really like (my scoring system is not well suited to something like this, but between 13/20 and 14/20). This is certainly top quality pizza, and up with the absolute best that the capital can offer.
Desserts are mostly bought in, but at least they buy well, with excellent Oddono ice creams. The chocolate gelato from this company is really lovely, as is the hazelnut ice cream. Service was functional and pleasant enough, the bill coming to £25 a head including beer to drink. Santa Maria and its siblings (and the best of its rivals) have done a great service to London in recent years by educating the capital about what pizza should really taste like, and raising the bar for the quality of this ever-popular dish. It is not so very long ago that the mediocre industrial pre-made pizzas of high street chains were all that most people could hope for. Now we know better, and I will raise a glass of Italian beer to that.