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Melting Point

By Ashleylister @ashleylister
The melting point of mozzarella cheese is one hundred and thirty fahrenheit degrees... could almost be the start of a poem, but fear not - it's too glib by far. However, remember that fact, for it might come in useful later.I have my (sadly departed) friend Lorraine Hurwitz to thank for introducing me to the delights of Pizza Express in London way back in the mid-1970s and it's been a constant favorite ever since.  In my estimation - speaking as someone who's probably consumed close on 1,000 of its American Hot pizzas in restaurants from Santa Monica to Warsaw - Pizza Express has consistently provided the best pizza to be found outside of Italy; which assessment would have pleased its founder if he were still with us. (By the way. if you're doing the maths, that's approximately 20 American Hots a year. And what of it?)That founder was one Peter Boizot. You've probably never heard of him. To paraphrase a famous Monty Python catchphrase: what has Peter Boizot ever done for us? You know I'm going to tell you, don't you?He was born in Peterborough in 1929 on Lincoln Road (incidentally just around the corner from where my family lived thirty years later and a few doors down from where I had to go for piano lessons) and attended King's School, becoming head boy there in the immediate post-war years. (King's School is where I would have gone for my secondary education if we had not moved on to Cambridge in 1964.) After school he went up to Cambridge and gained a BA in history from St Catherine's College. Through family connections he worked for a while in Florence, where his love for good pizza was established. Having turned vegetarian at age six he was impressed by the sheer variety of non-meat dishes available in Italy. When he returned to England (after the death of his father) he chose to live in London, in Soho for its ambience and nightlife - jazz clubs in particular - but he bemoaned the total absence of good pizza in this country. Yes, it was available in some Italian eateries but the quality wasn't great and it was rather frowned on as 'peasant' food. The secret, Boizot learned, was all in having the proper oven. And so, in 1965, prompted by friends, he opened the first restaurant in the capital specializing in pizza, using a proper imported Italian oven and pizza chef to produce a quality product, hand-made pizzas following authentic Italian recipes and techniques. Many things Italian were cool in the mid-1960s, from stylish mohair suits to motor scooters (both touchstones of the Mod lifestyle). Why should classic Italian food be any different? It wasn't, and his first Pizza Express proved very popular, so much so that he soon opened others around London - not that they were express in the sense of fast food, for everything was cooked fresh on the premises. It was quite the culinary and cultural revolution when Peter Boizot gave this country authentic Italian pizza, including a raft of vegetarian options, at very affordable prices. 
Did I mention that he was also the first to import Peroni beer to the UK to serve in his restaurants? Or that very soon he was putting on live jazz for his patrons in the evening? Or that he worked in partnership with Italian designer Enzo Apicella to create beautiful individual themes for his restaurants that preserved and enhanced the buildings they were housed in? (The Pizza Express in Coptic Street, Bloomsbury is one of my favourites, established in an old dairy and retaining many original features.) Or that he filled his establishments with tasteful decor and commissioned original artworks from local artists? He helped make Britain more cosmopolitan, more European, more fun. He became quite wealthy as his chain of Pizza Expresses expanded and was able to turn philanthropist to a number of charitable causes, as well as baling out his beloved Peterborough United football club on more than one occasion. Really, what a guy.
Ultimately because of his vision, we now celebrate national pizza day in the UK. The top ten Pizza Express pizzas by numbers sold are as follows: Margherita, American, La Reine, Fiorentina, Sloppy Giuseppe, Vegan Giardiniera, Pollo Ad Astra, American Hot, Padana and Veneziana. For years, 25 pence on the price of each Veneziana was donated to the Venice In Peril fund, by which means Pizza Express has raised over £2 million to help save that city from drowning.

Melting Point

Pizza Express American Hot (with hot green peppers)

It's perhaps ironic that pizzas with pepperoni on (the American and its Hot variant) should feature so highly on the list, given the founder was a vegetarian. I will say only this: that my elder daughter who has also been vegetarian since a young age for several years made a singular exception to her creed for the sake of Pizza Express pepperoni topping.
Believe it or not, I have sampled many of the pizzas on the Express menu, but I keep returning to my favourite, hand-prepared, cooked fresh with plenty of black pepper. That subtle combination of good dough, tomatoes, molten mozzarella, pepperoni and piquant green peppers washed down with a cold Peroni is a pleasure that has never failed. Perhaps it qualifies as my comfort food.Imagine then my horror when Blackpool's Pizza Express closed during the first Coronavirus lockdown and never re-opened, even though it wasn't on the list of 73 restaurants the company announced it would be closing for good in the summer of 2020. Damn you, Coronavirus.

Melting Point

Blackpool Pizza Express: closed by Covid, never to re-open

It was so sad to see those chairs stood up on the tables for months. And then one day the temporary fencing and skips appeared and the gutting began. I felt bereaved by its closing. Yes I can drive in under thirty minutes to one in Lytham St Annes or Preston (and almost certainly will), but it's not the same as being able to walk into town by day or night, enjoy a great pizza with a couple of bottles of Peroni and walk home again. Like all Pizza Express establishments, it was both iconic and unique and associated only with good memories. It was a touch of class in the center of town. Its decommissioning has momentarily taken a little of the shine off the jewel of the north.
Forgive the absence of a poem this week, mine or anybody else's. I've not written one and the poems about pizza that I've read left me feeling cold. It would need to be something that captures the bubble and grace of mozzarella at melting point (with slices of pepperoni and shreds of hot green pepper) and the cool ambience of marble-topped tables and art-deco designs... maybe one day, Pizza Expressions perhaps..
However, if/when you dine out in a Pizza Express restaurant in future, maybe spare a thought for its visionary founding father and raise a glass of Peroni or Prosecco in Peter Boizot's memory.
Melting Point

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