I could go for weeks, months, years without eating Chinese food (the gloopy Westernised stuff anyway, rather than the eye-opening dishes served up by Memories Of Sichuan). I can take or leave a burger: they’re great when you’re in the mood, but they’d rarely be my first choice. I enjoy Indian food but, with the exception of Namaste Kitchen, I’ll eat it mainly when it’s suggested by somebody else. But one thing I do love – properly love – is a really good pizza.
It does have to be good: none of your deep pan gubbins with Day-Glo pepperoni please, and no ham and pineapple nonsense. I don’t want a stuffed crust, barbecue sauce drizzled over like chocolate sauce, or crispy duck weirdness. I want a light base, a bubbled crust, good tomato, great mozzarella and a simple, classic topping. Ideally anchovies, capers and black olives: I order it as a test the way curry fans might go for a butter chicken or a lamb bhuna, a reference dish.
I’m always on the lookout for the perfect pizza and, equally importantly, the perfect pizza restaurant. In Paris it’s Le Briciole, on the edge of the Haut Marais, dark and dissolute, frequently a tourist-free zone and perfect for a lunchtime carafe, pizza, burrata and a chance to observe Parisians being, well, exactly that. I go every time I visit the city. In Helsinki it’s Linko, in the residential district of Toolo, a tiny place with fewer than twenty seats full of people enjoying unfussy pizza and the relative novelty of grabbing a bottle of wine without having to flog a kidney first.
Closer to home, there’s Bristol’s Bosco, sleek, black and full of delicious charcuterie and cheese before the main attraction arrives. In the edgier part of the same city, there’s Flour And Ash, where you sit at what look like reclaimed pub tables and the base is spread with ox cheek ragu. Or Lewes’ sadly departed The Hearth, in a converted former greasy spoon above the bus depot, all formica tables and old music on the jukebox. Heaven, I sometimes think, would be like a long drawn-out lunch in such a place.
In Reading, for a long time it was Papa Gee or nothing (except the chains and – err – Zero Degrees), and then along came Franco Manca. Franco Manca, although it isn’t perfect, has enough going for it that you don’t much mind. It’s quick and convenient, sometimes quite good, sometimes excellent. If you sit in the right place you can’t see all the way through to Debenhams (the Reading branch of Debenhams was once voted the worst shop in the United Kingdom – by Daily Telegraph readers, no less).
Good though Papa Gee and Franco Manca are, they don’t quite match up to the ideal of that little, bustling place turning out brilliant pizzas, full of conversation and people-watching. That’s where Newbury’s Lusso comes in. It started out serving from a van in town, before graduating to permanent premises offering sourdough pizzas and gelato and not a lot else. I always warm to a restaurant that only wants to be very good at a few things, and I’d had good reports from a number of people. One was my friend Izzy, who ought to know because she works in Newbury, so I met up with her one evening to try it out for myself.
Newbury’s a lovely, quiet market town with much to recommend it. An excellent beer, wine and gin shop. A good sushi joint. A cracking butcher on the bridge, selling splendid sausages. A micro-pub and a number of snug, cosy boozers (the King Charles Tavern is a favourite of mine, especially in winter when the fire’s on).
I can confidently add the gin bar of the Catherine Wheel to that list. Izzy and I stopped there for a pre-prandial drink and discovered a gigantic selection of gins – over a hundred, I seem to recall – all at a single price that would (or should, anyway) make the Thames Lido blush. My black tomato gin was fresh and green with a sprig of thyme, Izzy had a classic bone dry gin from Berry Bros and we started to catch up on everything that had happened since I saw her last. I noticed that the Catherine Wheel did a full range of Pie Minister pies and was tempted to dally, but we headed out to Lusso only a gin to the good: pizza one, pie nil.
Lusso is in the quaintly named “Weavers Walk”, just off the main drag, facing on to a courtyard which will no doubt be lovely in summer. It’s a small, plain room with probably no more than 30 covers – tables for two and four down either edge, and tables and benches along the middle which can be put together for communal dining (a large group sat there not long after we began our meal).
Everything was tasteful – pastel but not twee – although the tiled walls and the lack of any soft furnishings meant the place got very loud. I wouldn’t have guessed that when it was just Izzy, me and a family of four at another table, but by the time we left all but one table was occupied and we’d gone beyond buzz to full-on hubbub. There was an open counter at the back which meant you could see your food being assembled and cooked: at first it was alarming to see nobody there, but before too long the chef wandered through with a tray of pizza dough, ready to be stretched and shaped for the orders that lay ahead.
I took against the menu by virtue of it being in Comic Sans – this can’t just be me – but it made all the right noises. A few nibbles, a handful of starters, a burger and some salads (presumably for those rare individuals who go to a pizza restaurant and say “not pizza again”) and the main attraction, nine pizzas and a range of toppings if you wanted to customise. Pizzas were twelve pounds, so expensive compared to the likes of Franco Manca but not far off Pizza Express. Nonetheless, font notwithstanding, it’s hard not to like a pizza menu which features nduja but doesn’t have pineapple anywhere to be seen.
We started by sharing some nibbles, which gave me my first chance to see what Lusso was good at – and, as it turned out, less good at. A dish of grilled chorizo sausages was exactly that, nothing more and nothing less. It looked like it would be horrendous – three little sausages cut into halves and dished up with a couple of cocktail sticks – and I was relieved when I tried some that the chorizo was good quality, so what looked like it would be bouncy was in fact juicy. But I still had quibbles – they needed longer, and I’d have liked to see the chorizo in smaller slices. There was no caramelisation on the outside, and almost no oil – one of the best dips there is – had escaped into the ramekin. It didn’t feel like quite enough, for a fiver.
The baked Camembert had similar problems – it was on the small side for nine pounds, if nice to share, but it hadn’t been baked long enough to be properly gooey. No thyme, no garlic, no slashes across the top, no attempts at all to gussy it up. A pile of red onion chutney was nice but both literally and figuratively too much, and the salad was too easily knocked off the tiny plank onto the table (which, and I’m not telling tales here, is exactly what Izzy did). The sections of pizza bread it came with were a promising teaser for what was to follow, but it wasn’t the right bread for this kind of dish: you need something you can use to really get into the corners.
Our mains arrived with a speed which made me wonder whether Lusso was hoping to use our table again before the evening was out. It was a shame, because before that point I was starting to really enjoy the experience of eating there. We were having a good old chinwag about the things 2018 had thrown us so far, speculating on our fellow diners (“I bet that lot are from Vodafone” said Izzy, referring to the loud, self-satisfied bunch on the middle table) and enjoying our drinks – a very serviceable, fruity Nero d’Avola for me and a Diet Coke, the curse of the driver, for Izzy.
Between us we’d gone for traditional and off-piste pizzas – the Times New Roman and the Comic Sans, you could say. My pizza Napoletana, the gastronomic dragon I always chase in pizza restaurants, was extremely good. The base was beautifully irregular and blackened at the edges, although maybe not as bubbled as I’d have liked. I might have liked saltier, wrinklier olives, or bigger, fatter capers, but I couldn’t argue with the quantities. The anchovies were simply astounding, little savoury bombs, as deep and salty as Marmite, scattered across the whole pizza: no experience, like at Franco Manco, of picking which three or four mouthfuls to particularly enjoy. The mixture of melted mozzarella and torn pieces of cold, fresh mozzarella was a masterstroke: why don’t more places do this? I was delighted from start to finish, and even though this was Newbury and not Paris, Bristol or Helsinki, a little bit of me was happily transported.
“I normally have the margherita with pesto” said Izzy, “but it can make it a bit oily so I’ve gone for some chicken on there too.” I imagine purists are recoiling in horror at this – chicken on pizza is just below pineapple in Maslow’s hierarchy of crimes against pizza – but I couldn’t bring myself to be shocked. I didn’t try it, but Izzy enjoyed it from start to finish. It had the same great base, the same excellent mix of cooked and fresh mozzarella and the pesto was vivid, verdant stuff. The chicken impressed me less, being big thick uniform slabs that could have come from a catering pack. If I’d thought it had been cooked there, or torn by hand, I’d have been more convinced. But if you did happen to be in the mood for a chicken and pesto pizza – and I suppose some people are, sometimes – you could do far worse.
Dessert was compulsory, given that Lusso started life as a gelateria. I’d made the mistake of looking at the ice cream flavours online beforehand – Cotswold lavender and honey! Sicilian pistachio! – but they only stock ten at any one time in the restaurant and the ones on display smacked of playing it safe – chocolate, vanilla, mint choc chip and so on. Not for the first time, I missed Reading’s Tutti Frutti and Paul’s recurring bonkers project to create Barkham Blue ice cream (he never quite got it right).
The menu doesn’t actually include the option to just have ice cream, which is a bit confusing, so when we ordered a couple of scoops each they dished it up into a cardboard tub which we took back to our tables, an odd way to conclude a meal in a sit-down restaurant. The salted caramel, as often happens, tasted more like butterscotch, without even a hint of salt: not bad, but not what I’d ordered. I couldn’t help comparing it with my recent visit to the Lido: better on price (£4.20 for two very generous scoops), better for texture, being far smoother and less gritty, but falling down on flavour. Fortunately, the chocolate was much better – pretty textbook, much closer to milk than plain. But ultimately, however good it was, it was still only chocolate ice cream. Izzy tells me her honeycomb ice cream was lovely: I didn’t get any.
Service was pleasant and friendly, if stretched towards the end, and any issues with timing in the kitchen really weren’t the fault of the solitary waitress working that night. Dinner for two came to fifty-four pounds, not including tip, and we were done in just over an hour.
“That pizza was lovely” I said as I walked Izzy to her car.
“I’m so glad you liked it, it would have been awful if you hadn’t. But, to be honest, I wouldn’t have gone with you if I wasn’t confident about it. And it’s great for kids – pizza and ice cream is perfect for them. You should mention that, you never talk about kids in your reviews.” (She’s right, to be fair, and the kids’ menu did look pretty good.)
When a restaurant is out of town, it’s hard to divorce it from its surroundings. Of course you might go there all the time if you lived there, but what if you didn’t? Lusso isn’t quite on a level with all those places I mentioned at the start of this review but, perhaps crucially, it is slightly better than pizza restaurants in Reading. So whether you go probably depends on how much you fancy a trip to Newbury – and, of course, how much you like pizza. That renders the rating almost irrelevant, but for what it’s worth I liked Lusso. I can see myself going back, probably at the weekend for a nice amble round the food markets, more bubbled crust, mozzarella and salty anchovy, a bottle of gin from Inn At Home to add to my collection and a pint or two in the King Charles Tavern before taking the train home. It doesn’t sound like a bad Saturday, does it?
Lusso – 7.5
11 Weavers Walk, Newbury, RG14 1AL