I’ve always been a bit bemused by the huge fuss in this country about burgers, which has been around since before I started reviewing restaurants and, for the time being at least, still shows no sign of abating. I used to like to moan that they’re just a sandwich until I even bored myself, and although the better examples – Honest in Reading and the likes of Patty & Bun further afield – have helped me to appreciate them more they’d still never be my first choice. But a really good pizza – even if it’s just a big bit of cheese on toast with a fancy accent – is another matter altogether.
Oddly, there’s something about their universality that makes them an especially comforting thing to eat abroad, if you can find somewhere that does a really good one. I’ve eaten them in Le Briciole in Paris, one of my favourite places for a low-key boozy lunch while pausing between beautiful boutiques, and in Linko in Helsinki, where they remain one of the safest meals you can have without risking having to sell a kidney. I’ve eaten pizza all over the place, come to think of it – one strewn with fiery merguez at Otomat in Ghent, another in the impossibly cool Old Scuola in Rotterdam, all concrete and marble, clean lines and attractive, cosmopolitan clientele. That meal was disappointing, actually, but only viewed through the prism of 2019; I’d sacrifice one of my remaining aunts to Satan for such a city break and such an underwhelming dinner right now.
When I went to Bologna I of course had pizza there too, even though it isn’t from that part of Italy, and on my last trip abroad before the world changed, in Copenhagen, I ate at another ridiculously hipster pizza place called Bæst in Nørrebro, just opposite the To Øl taphouse. The pizzas were small – we’d ordered three between the four of us which turned out to be one of my regrets of the trip – but even so they were exemplary: one, all leopard-spotted puffy crust and tiny grenades of ‘nduja, was one of my highlights of the holiday. The only place I never seem to bother with pizza is on trips to Spain – there, for some reason, it feels like it would be taking the piss to stray from tapas.
Back in the UK, I’ve found excellent pizza more difficult to come by – difficult, but not impossible. There are good examples in Bristol – Flour & Ash has closed down, a sad casualty of Covid-19, but Bosco is still as good a neighbourhood pizza restaurant as you could hope to find, in a neighbourhood where I hope to live in my next life. Closer to home, I’ve grown to love Newbury’s Lusso: how I miss that half hour lazy train journey, stopping everywhere in the West Berkshire countryside and ambling past a giant Harrods depot, seemingly plonked there out of nowhere. And in Reading, of course, you can’t talk about pizza without talking about Papa Gee in general, and their legendary Pizza Sofia Loren in particular.
Takeaway, though, is another matter: much as I love pizza I practically never order it as a takeaway. I’ve tried Franco Manca through Deliveroo a couple of times, and what arrived, although technically a pizza, was so forlorn that it quite put me off doing it again. And I would just never order Domino’s or Papa John’s these days: as I get older I get a clearer idea of what, for me, constitutes empty calories and that kind of thing is very much on the list. This month I’ve taken to watching The Masked Singer on ITV of a Saturday night – because January is nothing if not the month for masochism – and there are what feel like constant ads for Domino’s. In one, there’s a slow-motion clip of someone lifting a slice of pizza up where you see the ropy, gloopy, stringy ribbons of cheese connecting it to the rest of the pizza, straining but not snapping, almost endlessly elastic: to be honest, it makes me want to barf.
Enter Firezza, about which I have heard good things. It’s a small chain of pizza delivery places – most in London but with three random branches outside the capital in Exeter, Reading and Tunbridge Wells. The Reading branch is up on the Shinfield Road, and they used to trade there a while back before closing and then, a few years later, reopening under the same name in the same spot: your guess is as good as mine. The website tells a familiar story – the founder went to Naples, fell in love with authentic pizza and decided to recreate it back in Blighty – but it did seem to be a genuine small chain rather than a franchise arrangement, and the whole thing looked interesting enough to be worth a try.
I ordered through Deliveroo, only subsequently realising that you can order directly through the website: a schoolboy error which will teach me to do a little more research next time. That said, I had a Deliveroo credit to use up from a stone cold Bakery House delivery at the start of the year, and the restaurant was doing an offer through Deliveroo where orders over £20 were half price – so what could go wrong? This doesn’t turn out, I’m afraid, to be a rhetorical question.
The menu has a decent selection of pizzas in Firezza’s trademark square shape – 25cm squared, the equivalent of a 12 inch conventional round pizza – and gluten free bases are available, although they cost more (as do vegan cheese, extra toppings and – a bit stingy, this – basil or rosemary). As is the fashion, ‘nduja makes an appearance on several of the pizzas and there’s also a white pizza with Sicilian sausage and friarelli.
There are also enough pizza toppings to inflame the militant wing who think chicken or, say, pulled pork don’t belong on pizzas. One of the pizzas boasts “imported Buffalo mozzarella D.O.P.”, which does make you wonder what kind of mozzarella they’re putting on all the others. There is also a variety of sides – chicken or mozzarella dippers, chicken wings, potato wedges and so on, but they all felt a bit Iceland for me so we passed on those. We ordered a couple of pizzas, sat back and relaxed. I even cracked open a beer.
Technology has achieved many things which twenty years ago would have been unthinkable, both good and bad. One of them, which I would say falls into the latter category, is the ability to see your delivery driver getting lost in close to real time. In the good old days, they would have taken roughly half an hour to get to your house while you sat there saying “what’s taking them so long?” to your significant other.
I still don’t know whether I miss the good old days, and whether ignorance is truly bliss, but now, thanks to the wonders of smartphones and GPRS you can know precisely the answer to that question as you watch your driver buffeted around on Reading’s one way system, hurtle past the turning for your house, meander down the Kings Road all the way to Cemetery Junction, make some kind of u-turn, come back to the vicinity of your house and then do it all over again. There’s an option on the Deliveroo app where you can contact the driver, so we did that. It went to voicemail. Twice.
He eventually pulled up outside our house about twenty-five minutes after setting off, with a big smile.
“Did you get lost?” I asked, which is silly really because we both already knew the answer to that. It’s a ten minute journey door to door.
“I’m sorry. It’s my first day, and I’ve never driven round Reading before.” He beamed again as he handed the boxes over. “It’s still hot.”
Getting them quickly into the living room, it became apparent that he was half right – the boxes were indeed hot, but that’s because they’d absorbed all the heat that had come off the pizzas, never to return. The pizzas looked handsome enough, though, so we decided not to waste any more time and tucked into them. We took off the little plastic trivets (which I discovered during the course of researching this are called either “pizza savers”, “pizza stools” or – not sure I understood this one at all – “pizza nipples”) and got stuck in.
Another problem was that only a cursory attempt had been made to cut the pizzas into slices – a few small incisions, but not enough that you could actually break it into slices without grabbing a big knife. Minor, really, but a nuisance none the less.
The more successful of the pizzas, I think, was the Porcini Di Bosco, a white pizza with porcini mushrooms, field mushrooms and truffle cream. There were plenty of fat, firm mushrooms on this, including some nicely meaty porcini, and the truffle cream was enjoyably aromatic: truffle isn’t for everybody, but I’ve always been a fan. The problems here were all from the delivery – partly because it just wasn’t hot enough and partly because a lot of the topping, randomly, had all shifted to one corner of the pizza. It was as if it had been stored at an angle, or had suffered from the driver going round a hairpin bend at speed.
The second pizza, the Gorgonzola, was meant to have gorgonzola, pepperoni and fresh basil on it. The basil had gone completely walkabout as, to a large extent, had the gorgonzola – in total we had two slices where it could be detected at all. So what was left was a pretty ordinary pepperoni pizza, apart from one slice in the corner which also had no pepperoni at all. So it was about 33% Gorgonzola, 16% Margherita and, all told, about 99% meh.
What’s saddest about all of this is that the base itself, the dough, was really pretty good. You could taste in every mouthful what might have been, which in some respects made it worse. We also ordered two optional dips for the crust – garlic mayo with rosemary, which Zoë liked, and smoked barbecue which I thought was just okay. Our meal for two, not including rider tip, came to just under thirty-nine pounds before applying their 50% off promotion and just under twenty pounds after.
Reviews like this make me very glad that, for takeaways at least, I’m not giving out ratings. Some of what was wrong with the meal – the uneven toppings, that missing gorgonzola – was the restaurant’s fault, but the majority of the problems rest with Deliveroo. And even then, I feel bad picking on a delivery driver: it’s a thankless job, not a brilliantly paid one and not one I’d fancy doing. And yet I don’t think it’s asking too much that a delivery driver either knows how to get around Reading, or has a satnav that will take the hard work out of it, or phones a customer when he’s completely lost, or picks up the phone when a customer rings.
Whether that’s the driver’s fault or Deliveroo’s for not having very stringent standards I really don’t know, but either way it puts me off using Deliveroo again unless the restaurant, or dark kitchen, is slap bang in the centre of town. I wish I’d known beforehand that I could order directly through Firezza: I might have paid more but I probably would have had a much better meal.
So is Firezza for you? Well, possibly: if you collect from them, or you live in Katesgrove, or Whitley, or the southern end of town, and you order directly through them, or you have a house that is relatively easy to find and you get a Deliveroo driver who has ever been to Reading before I do think it’s a superior alternative to Franco Manco or the likes of Papa John’s. I respect what they are doing, and I can see other customers could easily have a better experience than I did.
The problem with reviewing takeaways is that they are so much more localised than conventional restaurant reviews – I know those of you down the Oxford Road won’t find this terribly useful (in fact, it will probably make you miss Tuscany) and my devoted cadre of Caversham readers will quite rightly stick to Papa Gee. Speaking for myself, I wouldn’t rule out placing an order directly on the restaurant’s website at some point in the future. One day. But for now I’ll stick to adding a pizza to my Waitrose delivery, cringing my way through The Masked Singer and daydreaming from time to time of Paris, of Copenhagen, of Rotterdam and of lovely, sleepy Newbury.
256 Shinfield Road, Reading, RG2 8EY
Order via: Direct through the restaurant’s website, or through Deliveroo or JustEat