I have been in London for the past three weeks visiting my family and have taken this opportunity to visit Franco Manca in Balham as much as I possibly can. Yes people, I have a problem. I even had to stop posting each pizza on my Instagram feed as, quite frankly, it was becoming embarrassing. But with this obsession has come the possibility to really analyse what it is that makes this restaurant so good, why there have been queues to eat there every since it opened.
First and foremost - as it should be but so rarely is - the food tastes absolutely amazing. The pizza is one of the best I have ever eaten, and I have eaten literally thousands of pizzas from all different restaurants and takeaways all over the world, not to mention the many days I have spent trying to perfect pizza at home. As I described in detail in my last review of Franco Manca, the sourdough base has a delicious distinctive flavour all on its own which truly enhances the entire pizza-eating experience. I tried pizzas from a couple of other places over the past few weeks when I wasn't near enough to a Franco Manca and this was a consistent problem - the base just didn't really taste of anything. I can only really put this difference down to the use of sourdough and the very appetising, caramelised charring on the bottom of the pizza and the cornicione (crust).
This flavour is enough to almost carry the whole pizza, but on top of that they add a bright, well-seasoned, fruity tomato sauce made with quality, organic, Italian tomatoes. One of the key signs of a serious Italian pizzeria, one that truly aspires to greatness, is serving a pizza with only tomato sauce and a few herbs as a topping. I myself cannot quite bear to order it (I love cheese!), but it shows that these two ingredients are enough flavour for a whole meal, that without the embellishment of other toppings they are delicious in their own right. This is very unusual and welcomed with joy.
On top of this (no pun intended) the other flavouring are well-considered, flavoursome and high-quality. Vegetable toppings are sautéed, roasted, puréed or otherwise prepared beforehand to concentrate and highlight flavours. This compared with most places that sprinkle a few raw vegetables on top and hope for the best. Think instead caramelised onions, roasted potatoes, wild garlic pesto and the like. Just what a vegetarian like myself loves to see. The cheeses, some of which are made specially for them at a UK farm, are interesting and alluring - smoked buffalo mozzarella, Colston Bassett Stilton, Franco & Lloyd Somerset pecorino, to name a memorable few. Many of the ingredients are also organic, which should really bump up their ingredient costs, but this does not seem to be reflected in their prices.
Their choices of toppings are creative and change regularly with the passing seasons. They are not afraid to experiment with different combinations - no quattro stagioni here - and there was a different meat and vegetable special almost every time I visited. This is one of the first pizzerias where I have not just ordered my regular order (quattro formaggi, what else?), rather I have experimented with them as they try things out. Some I liked better than others, but they were all interesting and appealing in their own way.
The chilli and garlic oils supplied on every table are top-quality and really add an extra dimension to dealing with the crusts. You can also buy these handmade oils to take home at a reasonable £3.95 with refills available for £2.50. Free, chilled, filtered water is constantly replenished. These are really nice touches that enhance the eating experience without squeezing every last drop of money out of you. And, most welcome, a pepper grinder on every table.
There are a lot of staff (all curiously Italian in this London suburb) and the service is fast, efficient, friendly and unfussy. They are very flexible about letting you mess with their pizza toppings - swapping something here, adding something else there - unlike in other restaurants I have been to where no changes at all to the pizzas are allowed. Seriously, people really like to choose their own toppings! At Franco Manca it is positively welcomed.
This restaurant is amazing value for money - that basic tomato and oregano pizza costs just £4.50 (!!!) with the Margarita an absolute steal at only £5.90. Even if you go nuts with all the extra tempting topping choices, the pizza rarely exceeds £7 or £8, making it at least 20-30% cheaper than any comparable pizza in London, probably in Britain. And they don't try to sting you on the extras, with their admirably simple selections of wine, salads, desserts and coffee all, dare I say it, cheap. I don't think I have ever spent more than £15 a head there, even when drinks, starters, coffees and desserts have been ordered at some point or other.
There are many other little features that elevate this restaurant in my opinion - the homemade lemonade, the decadent starter of buffalo burrata, for example. And it is for these reasons and all the other reasons I have mentioned above that this restaurant has been buzzing straight from the beginning. Before it had even opened, people (myself included) were practically battering down the door. There are queues snaking out of the door many evenings and although I don't much fancy joining these queues myself (usually going for lunch instead), I think they are deserved.
Franco Manca is right next to a Pizza Express and while you are finishing off your coffee, basking in the glow of having eaten so well, you can look out of the window at those poor souls still eating there and wonder what possible reason they could have for not yet making the switch.