At the end of a terrace on Berkhamsted’s main high street is the town’s local PizzaExpress, standing where it has since 1997. This particular site may have been visited by regulars and new visitors alike for the last 20 years, but last night the staff were proudly showing off its recent refurbishment – and quite rightly too.
Mike and I are great Italiophiles and love the country, the people and the food but had never before visited a PizzaExpress branch, so we were keen to take up the invitation to try it out for ourselves.
On entering, it was still relatively quiet so we were given the choice of seats to dine at. We headed over to the rear corner of the restaurant where I could snuggle beside the radiator as I enjoyed my vantage point that gave me a view of the rest of the dining area.
The PizzaExpress chain was created by Peter Boizot, a reporter for the UK’s Associated Press, who had worked throughout Europe and eventually settled in Rome. On his return to the UK he was disappointed by its lack of good Italian food and so the first PizzaExpress opened in Soho in 1965.
The roots from which the chain has grown is evident in what we felt was the distinct lack of Italian atmosphere. Once seated, it quickly became apparent that this was not a typical Italian restaurant but a restaurant chain, one created to provide a dining experience that provides tasty Italian food to its customers and only that. There were no nods to Italy itself that we would have expected – no Italian background music or acknowledgments of the country’s many sights on the walls and this lack of ambience or recognition to such a beautiful, cultured country that offers so much was slightly disappointing.
Atmosphere aside, the food itself was marvellous. The menu was varied and offered not only pizza but also pasta options as well as lighter, lower calorie versions for those that are keen to keep an eye on their calorie count. As I had completed a two hour workout earlier on in the day, I decided against counting the calories for the evening.
For starters we chose a classic Italian antipasto which included a variety of Italian meats (Finnochiona, Coppa, Milano salami and Calabrese sausage), along with olives, marinated aubergine, roasted tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, sweet Peppadew peppers and dough baked with Gran Milano cheese, accompanied by garlic butter and pestorissa, a harissa spiced tomato dip. This is available as a single starter serving or one for two. We opted for the sharing starter which was more than generous.
For the main course, I decided to try a Romana Padana comprising a goat’s cheese, mozzarella, tomato, caramelised onion, spinach, red onion and garlic oil topping. Mike opted for a hot’n’spicy Diavolo, which he said was very hot and spicy indeed, proven by the tiny beads of sweat that appeared as he made his way through it. The size of the pizzas were enormous indeed and I struggled to make my way through mine, giving up before I had finished it which was a shame as it was incredibly delicious indeed.
I did manage to polish off my meal with a mouthwatering Chocolate Glory made with vanilla gelato, chocolate sauce, chunks of chocolate fudge cake and a chocolate straw. As much as my eyes pleaded with me to finish it, my stomach argued against it.
Mike enjoyed a decadent Honeycomb Cream Slice comprising honeycomb and chocolate pieces in a light cream topping on a layer of salted caramel and crunchy biscuit served with a choice of cream, mascarpone or gelato.
Overall, we had a very pleasant evening indeed within the restaurant’s freshly decorated surroundings. Whilst we felt it lacked an authentic Italian atmosphere that you would expect from dining in a real Italian restaurant, it serves to remember that it actually isn’t one. PizzaExpress is a chain based on the idea of bringing mouthwatering Italian dishes to the UK, so if a real Italian dining experience is what you are after you may well find it disappointing. What you do get, however, is efficient service from friendly staff and the reasonably priced food itself was extremely enjoyable – factors that we cannot fault at all.
Find your nearest PizzaExpress through their website here.
Thank you to the staff at PizzaExpress, Berkhamsted for welcoming us to their restaurant.