Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Weekend of Meat Part II: Franco Manca

Saturday was meant to be a burger day, but there was the suggestion of a trip to the amazing cheap-and-chic trinketmonger Tiger in Stratford that I couldn't resist.  A Danish import, Tiger is kind of like a mini-Ikea selling cute little household items you never knew you needed, and in truth probably don't really need.  The intention was to go to Meat Liquor, but when Jane mentioned there was also branch of Franco Manca at Stratford Westfield, the excitement of trying out this pizza place I'd heard so much about just about outweighed the repulsion at visiting a shopping mall on a Saturday.  Franco Manca started in Brixton market and is renowned for cheap, authentic and delicious Italian sourdough pizzas.  As my London friends are North London dwellers I've never made it there to sample their apparently delicious wares. 

Being closer to North London we found ourselves Stratford-bound.  To say that Westfield was busy is an understatement.  We knew that things were going to be intense from the moment we took the Overground from Highbury and Islington - standing room only - and then arrived at Stratford to find Olympic volunteers out in force directing crowds with giant foam pointy fingers printed with 'Olympic Park This Way'.  'Is it always like this?' we asked ourselves, 'God help us during the Olympics'.  Unbeknownst to us, there was a concert going on at the Olympic Park where approximately 75,000 people were due to attend.  Not a great day to plan a shopping/eating trip right next door.  But fortune favours the brave, and we steeled ourselves to the crowds, buoyed up by the thought of the ultimate reward in the form of flat baked bread and cheese.

After some ill-advised shopping, queuing and shuffling behind other peoples' B.O, we gave up and headed for the food area.  I really want to dislike Westfield shopping centres with their Americanised, generic shopping experience, but the shinyness (and warmth on another freezing early Spring day) is undeniably inticing.  The sheer scale of this palace of consumerism is incredible, including the area tailored to my favourite kind of consumption - the World Food Court.  At first I thought it unusual that a small, rustic and well-loved pizza kiosk (Franco Manca now have 3 branches) would be the sort of place that would fit in the potentially dull, mass produced chain store-food of the shopping mall.  But the extent of Westfield's food offerings is surprisingly impressive.  A shopping mall isn't the most atmospheric place to eat but while jostling the crowds and spying on their plates everything I saw - racks of BBQ ribs, lebanese mezze, hot dogs, Vietnamese soups, Indian street food - looked surprisingly fresh, well portioned, and good quality.

So how was Franco Manca... A little bit of queuing but brilliant, fast service once we got to the counter - the pizzas are prepared and tossed into a brick oven for a few minutes in the open kitchen behind.  One thing that's noticeable - and good - about Italian pizza is that there are frequently fewers topping combinations than we Brits are used to - often the best pizza has only two or three toppings.  In Italy, where they obviously have access to the best ingredients this results in an amazing clarity of flavour, and one of my favourite combinations is simply tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella and olive oil - resulting in a delicious juicy pizza.  The menu for Franco Manca is quite limited, and this being the Weekend of Meat I eschewed tradition and went for the £7.50 'Meat Special' which included a wide array of toppings including garlic, capers, peppers, pecorino, rocket and Gloucester Old-Spot sausage.  I actually appreciated this local British touch; the sausages may have used British rare breed pork but were prepared in a delicious Italian-style way with spices and fennel.  One thing to remember is that at Franco Manca if 'tomato' isn't listed, there's no tomato sauce on the pizza base, and while to some tastes the 'meat special' may not have needed it, I thought that a little tomato would have complimented the other flavours.  Franco Manca prides itself on its sourdough which uses a slow rising process and results in a very soft and floppy result, no crusty edges or base here, but fluffy and delicious.  I found myself folding over the pliable slices into a kind of 'wrap' which seemed like a good way to tackle it.  When I got to the edge I was glad of the drizzle of olive oil I'd opted for, though sort of wished I'd chosen chilli oil as I think it would have been nice to have a little more flavour when finishing off the bready goodness of the edge pieces... I actually would have loved a bowl of oil and balsamic vinegar.  A 175ml glass of Italian red wine on the side was a perfect accompaniment, fruity and drinkable, and priced at a very reasonable £3.45.  All in all it was worth fighting the crowds of Stratford to visit this little gem of a fast-food outlet, which still maintains a unique little taste of Italy (with a twist) amongst the rampant consumerism and corporate polish of Westfield.

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