Tom’s talking Italian at Quartieri

The latest Whampdinner took us down the KHR and (via the ever-splendid Black Lion) into Quartieri, to see what all the fuss was about regarding apparently authentic Italian pizzas…

It’s cheery inside, smart but laid-back, with one wall housing a remarkable array of herbs and chilis, quite a sight, and wonderful to know they’re going straight into the dishes.

Quartieri herb garden

Browsing the menu in advance I immediately got the impression these were ‘serious’ pizzas, as many appeared simple, without too many toppings, and no additional ones (though there were some less-standard choices available, and a special, a lemon-based one which sounded intriguing).

My table quickly devoured a charcuterie board, and looking across the room I noted an elegantly presented salad indicating care and attention. This seemed to have what looked like crisps placed on top; Mark noted several comments on these, in some cases accompanied by quirky Italian terminologies for fried this or that, but I think we’re all in agreement that yes, those were crisps!

Quartieri charctuerie

The bruschetta was good, as was the gnocchi (we tried some as a bonus starter) – somehow light yet rich, with a tantalising softness to it and just a little ‘edge’ as well. For both these dishes, I’d have liked a touch more salt, but then I’ve probably mashed my tastebuds due to decades of, well, getting mashed.

Quartieri Bruschetta

Quartieri gnocchi

I selected the Puttanesca pizza. With simple pizzas there’s nowhere to hide, so there has to be seasoning and taste; and indeed this was delicious, with strong flavours and satisfying dough. For sure, it had a touch of class and confidence to it, which I think is is what we were hoping for with this type of venture.

I was puzzled by all the toppings being in the centre (from the menu: Agerola fior di latte, slow food capers, and Caiazza black olives from Selanova), and although I admired the intention of these dark, intense olives being unpitted, this did inevitably mean it wasn’t easy to get a taste of everything in one bite. More puzzling was the omission of the stated Casa Marazzo organic tomatoes, especially as the whole menu sings-out “tomatoes!” throughout. The bonus addition of basil added a nice dimension though. Whatever, I’d happily have been back to try other options at 8am for breakfast given the opportunity. (Well perhaps 10am).

Quartieri pizza puttanesca

Service, via the friendly but professional Luka, was efficient, and we enjoyed a chat with the effusive founder, Tony, who seemed to be an exact 50-50 Italian / English mix. Us simpletons were amused and confused in equal measure initially, when Tony read menu options in vibrant Italian before sounding like a Kilburn pub landlord moments later.

We tried two reds: Aglianico Quartieri 17 – “savoury, meaty notes and plum fruit characterise this dry house red” – indeed it was dry, quite a refreshing wine to start off with, then Piedirosso Pompeiano 20 – “a medium bodied red with hints of strawberry on the nose and strawberry & blackcurrant on the palette” – a similar lightness (12.5% ABV) but with rather more to it, to match up against the grub.

A note about the chili oil – it was excellent. That sort of heat which creeps up, transpiring to be far more complex and indeed spicier than expected. Now, I tried to stitch-up poor old Goetz on my table, by assuming a nonchalant manner and suggesting “put tons of it on, it’s very mild” – however, as Goetz already knows I’m an idiot, he saw through my devious plan immediately – dismissing it with a chuckle and a bite of his calzone. Doh!

High quality pizzas, then lounging about in The Black Lion a couple of doors down – sounds like a sensible Kilburn-based evening, does it not? Welcome, Quartieri – we look forward to next time.

Poco Pizza puzzles punters

Last week, an intrepid group of locals, aka “Team Pizza”, checked out the latest addition to the neighbourhood, Poco Pizza. Eugene tells the story.

Poco Pizza recently opened in West Hampstead on the site of Paya. Confusingly, the management hasn’t changed and the Paya sign still sits above the window, while a wrap-around sheet advertises the pizzas.

Inside, we were given both Paya’s original Chinese/Thai food menu and the pizza menu. A wood fired pizza oven has been installed right in the middle of the restaurant, so customers can see the pizza chef at work. Offering two such different cuisines doesn’t always inspire confidence, so Team Pizza approached with trepidation.

We’d looked at the take-away menu before, which had items I’d never seen on a pizza before such as mussels on the Marinara. Indeed, it had whole pizzas I’d never heard of: a cheeseburger pizza (minced beef, thinly sliced onions, pepper, pickle relish, ketchup, yellow mustard, bacon, lettuce and chopped tomatoes) and a chilli cheese dog pizza (all beef hot dogs, olive oil, finely chopped garlic, chilli with beans, onions, chopped dill pickles, shredded cheddar, ketchup and yellow mustard). Bizarrely, the online version of the take-away menu omits these two and the “Greek Pizza”.

Having seen this menu, and hearing of 41 possible extra toppings, we were a bit surprised to see that the restaurant menu was more limited than the takeaway menu; in fact it was more or less completely different and one-size only. There was still a good choice, but there was no cheeseburger or chilli cheese dog pizza here. In fact, the restaurant menu was very orthodox, and prices were reasonable, ranging from £8.50 to £12.50.

The house white was perfectly serviceable house; the wine list isn’t extensive, but that’s fine for a place like this. Strangely, we noticed there were four different pots of pepper – of varying shapes and size, but no salt shaker at all.

After starters of olives and peppers stuffed with what claimed to be feta cheese, but tasted distinctly like cream cheese, we tucked into our pizzas. The consensus was that the dough was too soft; certainly mine felt just about baked but it wouldn’t have suffered from another minute or two in the oven, or just a higher temperature. The cheese was melted and browned in parts, but still seemed a little runny on the base. It was the same story with the porcini. And on pretty much everyone’s pizza. Nothing was bad, although Tom said his pizza was very underseasoned. It just all felt a bit watery. Nicky’s Fiorentina (unconventionally served with goat’s cheese) had the freshest ingredients, with baby spinach leaves attractively scattered on top.

Certainly Poco does not skimp on the toppings. I had a mushroom-based pizza that was dripping in funghi. Across the table, Dan’s meat feast was loaded with ground beef, sausage, chicken, salami and bacon.

The service was friendly, and we all felt bad that we were a bit full to try the tiramisu, which we were assured had been freshly made in the kitchen that afternoon. Such was the hard sell of the tiramisu in fact, that we began to suspect it was by far the best thing on the menu.

The problem, it seems, with Poco is that it is over-complicating the humble pizza with all these toppings, when it would be better to keep things simple. We are spoilt for choice of pizza in West Hampstead – with Sarracino, La Brocca, Bellaluna, La Smorfia, Lupa, Papa John’s, Domino’s and Basilico on the Finchley Road. Given this competition, Poco will need to up its game. This could be a classic case of “less is more” and with fewer ingredients on the menu it shoud be easier to ensure they are fresh and that the cooking times become more uniform.

Poco Pizza
96 West End Lane
020 7624 2625

It’s pizza time

It’s Tuesday, there’s footie on the telly and nothing in the fridge. What are you going to do? One word, five letters, incorrect transliteration of the original Italian spelling. Yes, it’s pizza time.

A select group of locals with refined palates and empty stomachs decided to investigate pizza delivery options in West Hampstead – and lo, pizza-tasting was born.

There are four West Hampstead-based pizza delivery places at the moment, and we threw in one from Finchley Road for good measure. We had menus from Domino’s, Pizza Lupa, Papa John’s, Sarracino and that Finchley Road interloper Basilico on the table – one menu each; ready, steady, go.

We ordered in decreasing order of proximity in a futile attempt to cause a five-scooter pile-up. Basilico was first up and we went for a 13″ Ruspante (£13.75), which had smoked chicken, tomato, mozzarella, dolcellate, brie and red onions. First to order, last to deliver, taking just over the 45 minutes proclaimed on the website. Oddly, the website also suggested we might like to order some fresh carrot juice for £3.00. We declined. Aside from strange recommendations, the website was easy to use.

Domino’s had its Two for Tuesday offer and far be it from us to turn down free pizza. Once again ordering online pizza was simple. We picked a classic 11.5″ New Yorker (pepperoni, ham, bacon, mushrooms) and a 11.5″ Vegi Volcano (onions, green peppers, tomatoes, jalapeno peppers, extra mozzarella cheese) for £13.99. It took 32 minutes to arrive.

Pizza Lupa was next up – Pizza Cucina in London Bridge has merged with Lupa’s two north London outlets to deliver a new menu for customers of all three. We opted for the £12.50 13″ Funghi di Bosco (truffle paste, roasted field and porcini mushrooms, taleggio, thyme, truffle oil). It took 16 minutes to arrive. The web interface was identical to Basilico’s strangely.

Papa John’s also had a 2-for-1 deal. We chose a medium Papa John’s Favourite (Italian style six-cheese blend, pepperoni, sausage, Italian style seasoning) and a Chicken BBQ (chargrilled chicken, barbeque sauce, bacon, onions) both thin crust (you can also choose “original”). It took about 20 minutes to arrive and cost £13.99, but the online ordering process was slow compared to all the others.

Finally, a quick phone call to Sarracino (which doesn’t have online ordering) and an £8.95 Cafoncella pizza (mozzarella, sausage, potato, smoked cheese and rosemary) was on its way. By far the quickest (but also the nearest), this took just 10 minutes.

So, what did we think? There wasn’t a great deal of agreement, especially with so many strong flavours involved. The Cafoncella split opinion the most – it was my favourite, with the pungent rosemary just managing not to overpower the other flavours. But one man’s “subtle” is another man’s “bland”, it would seem. The base was crispy and it was clearly freshly made.

Basilico’s cheese feast of a pizza was too rich and the red onions too sweet for me. It looked spectacular, and was the least round of all the pizzas. Brie is an unusual pizza topping, and it slightly overwhelmed. The base wasn’t so much thin as almost non-existent, making this the hardest to eat.

Pizza Lupa’s mushroom extravaganza looked the best, and smelled amazing. It wasn’t the hottest sadly. If you like mushrooms then you are probably going to like this pizza really quite a lot although I’d prefer it with less cheese.

Those are the ’boutique’ pizzerias, but what about the big boys? Papa John’s and Domino’s both delivered the hottest pizzas, the most uniformly round pizzas and had pre-sliced them. Domino’s New Yorker disappointed – a little too greasy, and the base wasn’t especially crisp.

The Vegi Volcano on the other hand was the surprise package of the night – it didn’t look the best, but it tasted good, with the right balance of jalapenos to give it a kick. Of the four pizzas from the two chains, this was my favourite.

Papa John’s Favourite was our least favourite. The six cheese blend was just an unidentifiable mound of melting fat, and the pepperoni slices were far too crispy and fatty. Not for me.

The Chicken BBQ looked strange, with the BBQ sauce drizzled over chef-style, eliciting laughs from us all. However, “if you like BBQ sauce, then you’ll like this pizza,” seemed to be the consensus. Some people went back for seconds, I didn’t finish my slice.

All but Sarracino offer online ordering, but if you’re a first-time customer then the registration process for all the websites is tedious and slow. Phoning up is probably the better option although you’ll then have to pay cash on delivery.

Between five of us, we’d munched our way through the best part of seven pizzas (and may or may not have drunk a reasonable number of bottles of red wine). We were full, it was time for bed, and there was still plenty left over for breakfast…

Collection or delivery
Domino’s, 262 West End Lane
020 7431 0045 (11am to 11pm/11.30 Fri/Sat)
Basilico, 515 Finchley Road
0800 313 2656 (11am ’til late)
Pizza Lupa, 255 West End Lane
020 7431 5222 (12.30 to 10.30pm)
Papa John’s, 177 West End Lane
020 7624 0197 (11am to 11pm/midnight Fri/Sat)

Collection, deliver, or eat-in
Sarracino, 186 Broadhurst Gardens
020 7372 5889 (5.30 to 11pm Mon-Fri, midday to 11pm Sat/Sun)

Collection or eat-in (no delivery)
Pizza Express, 319 West End Lane
020 7431 8229
La Smorfia, 327 West End Lane
020 7431 4101
J’s, 218 West End Lane
020 7435 3703

This blogpost is sponsored by Domino’s Pizza. All opinions expressed are completely independent.