In Eat Pray Love, Julia Roberts’ character famously falls in love. Though a man was the object of one of her desires, the film’s best love story involves Roberts and a pizza. Not just any pizza. At L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, one of Naples’ oldest and best-loved institutions, Robert declared she was “having a relationship” with her Margherita. Not quite “I’ll have what she’s having”, but a memorable scene nonetheless.
In 1870 da Michele began producing pizzas for hungry Neapolitans. 147 years later, they have brought their world-famous pies to London. Unparalleled hype means da Michele has had no problem attracting customers to its first London outpost, situated in the hippest of locations on Stoke Newington Church Street. On my first visit, a week after opening, it took two hours to finally get a table, though we were free to wander and wait for the restaurant to call. The clientele was mostly Italian, always a good sign.
The restaurant is small and unpretentious despite its trendy surroundings. The hustle and bustle of 40-50 hungry foodies waiting for a table or a takeaway makes for a challenging environment, but the staff calmly dealt with it. The menu is short, a big Italian middle finger to unnecessary ostentation; there’s no venison or kale here. There are only two options: the classic Margherita, and a Marinara (tomato, garlic and oregano), and the drinks menu is equally concise. The customer next to us was denied chilli oil. This is my kind of place.
The pizza arrived promptly, and my god was it worth the wait. Da Michele have flown in Neapolitan experts, and have even adapted their dough recipe to suit the British climate. Meticulous attention to detail is crucial for such a simple dish, and da Michele pulls it off as well as anywhere in London.
“Jesus, those are huge!” was my first impression as the waiter brought our giant Margheritas (£7.90). The dough was beautifully chewy, light, and bubbly, with charred spots providing the characteristic Neapolitan look, taste and texture. Mozzarella was sparsely dispersed, allowing the real party piece, the sweet, fresh tomato sauce, to shine. It is brave to strip down to the basics, especially to Londoners used to artisanal meats and heirloom vegetables atop their pizza, though da Michele will offer a rotating specials menu. But when the basics are this good, there is no need for more.
L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele is not a trail blazer in the London pizza scene. Since 2008, when Franco Manca first opened its doors, Neapolitan pizzas have become overwhelmingly popular, and several establishments across London serve excellent versions. What the doyens of da Michele have done, however, is to bring the original, humble pizza back to its simplest form.
And finally, a message to Julia: you may have entered a relationship with your pizza, but, sorry to break the news, your pizza has moved on, finding a new lover in London. As soon as the crowds die down, I’ll be back.