Pizza Restaurant DeathMatch!

12th December 2002

1. Introduction: Head-to-Head in Belsize Park
2. My Review
        2.1. ASK
        2.2. Pizza Express
3. Harv's Review
        3.1. ASK
                3.1.1. ASK Establishment
                3.1.2. ASK Pizza
        3.2. Pizza Express
                3.2.1. Pizza Express Establishment
                3.2.2. Pizza Express Pizza
4. Conclusions
As of today (12th December 2002), this review is also published at ThePizza.Shop.

1. Introduction: Head-to-Head in Belsize Park

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.

2. My Review

2.1. ASK

ASK may have benefitted slightly from being the first of the two restaurants we went to, so I still had the edge on my hunger, and that tends to make things taste better. So you might like to take that into account.

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%

2.2. Pizza Express

This is a very widespread chain now, and quite highly thought of - certainly on a different plane from the awful Pizza Hut and one-dimensional Deep Pan Pizza Company. But are there signs that years of positive press is leaving Pizza Express feeling that they can rest on their laurels?
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%

3. Harv's Review

3.1. ASK

3.1.1. ASK Establishment

I'm a firm believer in ASK, my wife and I visit the Watford branch fairly regularly (though not so much now we've found a good Lebanese restaurant). The Belsize Park branch is quite a bit smaller than the Watford version, but made up for it by having a very excellent glass conservatory, one wall of which mirrored, the ceiling had folding white blinds, and the other glass walls looked out onto unspecific greenery (didn't take too much notice). The room was candle lit, and the seating was arranged around the walls with a decent amount of room. The chairs and tables were firm (no annoying wobbles), and the waitresses were too (which is important since we're eating here, not watching Miss World). The service was fair to good, given that they were very busy - however Mike's oils took some time arriving, and even when they did, a waiter quickly snatched one of them and gave it to another table before we'd drowned our pizzas.

Rating: 8/10

Improvements: Less people, allowing for better waiting, and a nice bottle of Cabernet.

3.1.2. ASK Pizza

The ``Inferno'' (or American Hot as it's known in the trade) from ASK measures about seven inches in diameter (slightly larger than a fork's length) and almost fills the plate that it arrives on. The crust is perfectly sized, not to large that you leave it till last just in case you get your fill on the meat, and not to small that the pizza has no frame to hold it together while you eat it with your hands (the correct method in my opinion, though for some reason I elect to use knife and fork in restaurants, it's just not seemly perhaps).

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.

Rating: 9/10

Improvements: More peppers, with a larger version would be unbeatable.

3.2. Pizza Express

3.2.1. Pizza Express Establishment

Laying my cards on the table, I've been put off Pizza Express by bad experiences. They always seem to be very busy, full of families with small children that screech a lot, and usually are staffed by far too few staff, who then due to stress, promptly forget that you're a customer and just throw your food at you. I was glad to see that this wasn't just a problem with the Watford version, though Belsize was slightly different; there was hardly anyone in there (and those that were, were of the older more sedate variety) - but the only waiter seemed to be just as brusque as I remember from other establishments. The room itself was fairly non-descript, nothing much memorable. The marble effect table had a slightly perceptible wobble, good enough for general eating, but it wouldn't hold up to a prolonged elbow leaning and argumentative hand pounding of typical post dinner conversations.

Rating: 6/10

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''.

3.2.2. Pizza Express Pizza

The redeeming feature of Pizza Express are the pizzas. I suppose that's the idea - it was the first ``Fast Food'' restaurant to hit Britain, and had to be more up market than McDonalds to win over 70's Britain. The ``American Hot'' pizza about seven inches in diameter (same size as ASK), presented on a slightly larger plate. The crust was as it should be, holding the pizza together, and due to the less up market feel of the restaurant more likely to be used to hold the pizza. The base was also perfect, not too doughy or thick, but just right.

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.

Rating: 9/10

Improvements: Loose the olive already!

4. Conclusions

Unless Belsize Park just happens to have a particularly good ASK branch and a particularly poor Pizza Express, the evidence is that Pizza Express are just not trying any more; whereas ASK are making a big effort to get established. And on this showing, they're succeeding.
Feedback to <mike@miketaylor.org.uk> is welcome!