Ben Thornton Harwood joins Pizza Pilgrims as they seek inspiration from the Italian masters over in Naples
Our chef fills a slab of dough with ricotta, ham and mushrooms. He folds it over, presses the edges shut and slings it into a vat of boiling oil. The dough puffs up slowly as the heat steams the savoury glory within, turning the soft shell of dough crisp before our eyes. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the deep-fried calzone.
Opening it is just as beautiful – an eruption of steam, followed by the aromas of cheese and mushroom. It’s a gooey mess and it’s wonderful. I look at my hosts and they nod in agreement. This one is going on the new menu.
The place? Naples. The plan? A 48-hour binge on dough and cheese with Pizza Pilgrims – AKA Thom and James Elliot, two of Britain’s most exciting young cooks – as they hunt inspiration and test produce in the humble kitchens where their story began. As they rapidly grow their business from a dinky three-wheeler van into a burgeoning empire, they've gone back to their roots. And I’m along for the ride.
The trip starts with a hair-raising taxi ride from Napoli airport, after which I sit down with the Elliots to talk about the past, present and future of Pizza Pilgrims. It’s also my first experience of a proper no-frills Neapolitan restaurant.
The sole cooking device is an enormous mosaic-clad pizza oven, and at its helm stands an equally enormous Italian man. Yet he works the dough with astonishing speed; kneading, pulling and tossing it with a slightly bored look on his face as he makes a simple margherita – a world away from barbecue sauce-covered takeaway abominations.
One bite and it’s easy to see why the Elliots are evangelists for the Italian way of cooking. “The two main things are quality and simplicity,” explains James through bites of fennel sausage pizza. “That’s become our mantra.”
Pizza Pilgrims was officially born in September 2011. After tiring of advertising (Thom, 30) and TV production (James, 28), the Elliot brothers quit their jobs and flew to Italy to get their flagship pizza van.
“We knew nothing about pizza at this point,” admits James. “We went to pick up this van, and that turned into visiting Naples and learning about proper pizza.”
The van in question is Conchetta, the iconic Piaggio named after a buffalo mozzarella farmer’s wife, who I’m assured was “completely mental”. The Pilgrims had wanted to have it shipped back to the UK, but with funds low, the only option was to drive it back. No easy task with the Alps to traverse and only a 50cc engine and three wheels.
“These trips aren’t just holidays,” says Thom. “We meet suppliers and chefs, who are kind and passionate, which is just so cool.” This purpose of finding the true authenticity of Naples became a key part of their story and directly informed the quality of their food.
With Conchetta by their side, the Pilgrims quickly made a name for themselves at London’s Berwick Street Market, dishing up some of the most authentic pizza in town. A year later, they got the keys to their Dean Street pizzeria, and now – ahead of the opening of their second restaurant off Carnaby Street – their latest trip to Italy involves picking up another van, finding menu ideas and sourcing lemons for new limoncello project, Sohocello.
The move into Italian liqueur is a reminder that the Elliots’ passion for Italy’s cooking isn’t limited to pizza. We explore tiny food stalls, and the brothers’ eyes light up at booze-soaked sponge wrapped in sweet filo pastry. Around a corner, we’re met by gelato in colours and flavours I never knew existed.
But this is nothing compared to the ‘lemonade’ made by a tiny woman who may be the oldest, and loudest, person in Naples. She adds bicarbonate of soda and sugar to lemon juice and, as it starts to violently fizz, urges us to consume it immediately. You’re left with the sensation of chewing a lemon-flavoured Berocca. It’s not unpleasant, but it sort of is.
Our next stop that evening is Gino Sorbillo’s, regarded as the best pizzeria in Naples, where we meet Matteo, the former head chef at Pizza Pilgrims, for dinner.
As Thom, James and I sit down, tables of locals, tourists, old and young wait to be served by the most miserable Italian waiter imaginable. Still, he manages to gruffly deliver slice after slice of the dish James calls the ultimate global foodstuff: “Every culture has a flatbread with toppings, baked or grilled or even deep-fried,” he says.
Matteo is a self-proclaimed pizza addict, claiming to consume at least six a week. As I wonder aloud why he isn’t the size of a house, he explains that, at its most basic level, pizza is an open sandwich with tomato sauce – light and quickly cooked, not stodgy and saturated in fat.
This is the pizza purism the Pilgrims brought to London, but now they’ve hit upon something that pushes their original formula to its limits: that sizzling, folded pizza that will form the centrepiece of their new friggitoria range.
As Thom notes, even disciples of simplicity need to bend the rules sometimes. “If you were an alien and you tried a Domino’s, you’d think it was delicious,” he says. “It’s like that Mel Brooks quote – ‘Pizza is like sex: even when it’s bad it’s still good’.”
SPIRIT OF NAPLES
A week later and I’m walking to Dean Street to finally get a taste of the Elliots’ labour of love. “We are just a pizzeria, we do one red wine, one white wine, one beer on tap. If it’s not the simplest option, it’s not the right one. We’re cutting out the paradigm of choice,” says James.
It’s a great mentality to have. If perfection is unobtainable, then just make a few dishes truly great. It’s an ethos that’s working well for both the Pilgrims and Neapolitans, so before you order that hot dog-stuffed mighty meaty with extra dipping sauce, consider whether “less is more”. Unless, of course, it’s deep-fried calzone.
Sohocello will be available at selected retailers and Pizza Pilgrims in Dean St and Kingly Court. EasyJet flies to Naples from five UK airports; flights start from £23.74 per person (one way, inc taxes and based on two people on the same booking); easyjet.com