12th December 2002
As of today (12th December 2002), this review is also published at ThePizza.Shop.
Last night, I met a couple of my old University buddies, Harv and Slimo, for a pizza in Belsize Park. We found ourselves not too sure where to go: the old reliable Pizza Express, or a newer chain that I'd not come across before called ASK. Well, we went to ASK, where the pizza was good but insufficient, so it seemed like the natural thing to go on to Pizza Express as well, eat the equivalent pizza and compare them head-to-head. (I believe this is what wine buffs call a ``horizontal tasting''.)
So here's the dope - two comparative reviews, which should go some way to eliminating bias.
Size Woefully inadequate, especially in light of the inflated expectation that Harv, an ASK veteran, had given us. The pizza was substantially smaller than the ten-inch plate on which it was served, maybe nine inches diameter in total. 4/10 Base Excellent texture throughout: firm yet yielding, crisp outer surface at the edges, doughy but not soggy in the middle. Not so thick as to overwhelm the toppings, but not so thin as to make the whole pizza insubstantial. 9/10 Sauce Solid tomato flavour with some spicing. 8/10 Cheese Bog-standard pizza-style mozzarella. I always feel that slavish devotion to mozzarella on pizza is a missed opportunity since it has so little character of its own - a cheddar topping may not suit the purists, but does make its own contribution to the experience. Still, nothing to complain about here. 6/10 Toppings In accordance with standard practice, I went for the pepperoni-and-chilis combination, known here as the Inferno. Excellent, meaty pepperoni, but the chilis, while fine on the heat, lacked in flavour of their own. 7/10 Extras A large flask of chili oil appeared after a brief delay, accompanied by a dish of garlic oil. These really made the pizza, lifting it above the ordinary into a pungent, concentrated flavour explosion. 10/10 Service Quick, efficient, friendly without being overly familiar. Also, for some reason, the restaurant seemed to be staffed exclusively by very good-looking girls. 10/10 Value Pizza came in at about £6.50, which is a bit steep for a smallish circle of dough with some tomato, cheese and sliced sausage; but the setting and service were outstanding, and the oils made the pizza excellent. 9/10
Total: 63 points of a possible 80, or 79%
Size Identical to the ASK pizza in all dimensions. Uncannily so, in fact. I'm sure they used to be bigger back before Pizza Express became complacent. 4/10 Base Generally excellent, though slightly less elastic and more brittle than the ASK base. 8/10 Sauce Fine, although maybe a tad overdone. Which is better than underdoing it, if you have to choose. 7/10 Cheese Standard mozzarella. This would have been an opportunity for Pizza Express to win back some of the points lost to ASK in other areas, but I suppose they gained their half-decent-pizza-chain reputation by sticking to the classic formula and doing it well, so it's no surprise that they're still doing what's worked well for them. 6/10 Toppings The pepperoni-and-chilis combination is known here as the American Hot (do Italians really not have pepperoni?) The Pepperoni was somewhat more artificial than at ASK, but the chilis were much better: there's an option of green chili or jalapenos, and the latter are an altogether fruitier proposition. In fact my mouth is starting to water right now as I'm thinking about it. 9/10 Extras Garlic oil was provided on request, but in so surly a manner that I scarcely dared ask for chili oil. In addition to the advertised toppings, the pizza came with a solitary, rather sad-looking olive, which turned out to taste rather sad too: over-preserved, straight out of a jar from Tescos. Very disappointing. 3/10 Service Slow, sullen and glowering, though I suppose I must say it wasn't overtly hostile. At least everything arrived reasonably quickly, and with no mistakes. 4/10 Value Pizza was £7.50ish, which really is extreme. Given that we were also inexplicably shoved away into an ill-lit and isolated area at the back of the restaurant, the whole experience came out as more expensive then and less fun than ASK - although still a perfectly good pizza. 6/10
Total: 47 points of a possible 80, or 59%
Improvements: Less people, allowing for better waiting, and a nice bottle of Cabernet.
As with all good pizzas, this is your ``thin and crispy'', not your ``wodge of dough'' pizza, and had a good texture, not too doughy and soft, and yet not hard and crunchy. The toppings were ample, a large amount of pepperoni, but a marginal amount of the jalapenos. Not so much an inferno, more of a large conflagration then, but a bit of chili oil helped fan the flames. Taste wise, this is definitely the best choice of Pizzas in ASK, and I'd polished it off in good order, and even with a starter, had adequate room for a desert (chocolate fudge cake warmed up with ice cream is a good choice here), or in this case had room to check out Pizza Express's version.
Improvements: More peppers, with a larger version would be unbeatable.
Improvements: Employ more waiters, loose the marble effect tables, add mood lighting and some greenery in large polished caskets. Basically go see how ASK do it. ``Express'' doesn't have to mean ``McDonalds''.
The toppings were marvellous, the amount of Jalapenos (you could choose green peppers, but that's for wimps) was outrageous -- though I wasn't keen on the fact that some were slice at odd angles, making them look like strange slabs of green. The only let down on surface constituents was a lone black olive which tasted like it had been stored in a bowl for several days; processed gunk in my opinion. Having a few good olives would have been different, and I'm not sure would have improved it, but one black olive? Pah! Aside from this strange affectation, an excellent pizza. Serve this Pizza, minus olive, in ASK, and I'd be in heaven.
Improvements: Loose the olive already!