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Take Another Little Pizza My Heart

Once upon a time there was Little Chef. There was the Jumbo Crunchy Fishfinger and a lolly at the till if you were a good girl. That sounds creepy and shit now, but believe me it was a pant-wetting treat in the 1980s.

Back then, there were precious few child-friendly options for a family hoping to eat out in a small town.

Yet there was Little Chef, nestled picturesquely behind the car wash at our local garage, screaming US diner sophistication on a grey, wet Sunday. To me, it felt like dining at the Ritz.

But man cannot live by breaded cod alone. At the age of 12 (bescrunchied, green denimed and clutching my River Island backpack like a guaranteed winner), I discovered Pizza Hut.

The interior was a cosy splurge of reds and browns, like lunching in a ruptured artery.

And the menu simply blew my mind. Like many British kids, I was brought up on meat-and-two-veg chugged down with a cold bucket of milk, custard or gravy.

Everything was delicious but nothing really tasted of much.

Yet here was the chance to sample (and obviously reject) anchovies, pepperoni, olives and Italian sausage.

Put simply, my mouth couldn’t handle it. On a family trip to Rome around this time, I sent back a plate of pesto pasta for being “too spicy”.

Back at the Hut, I played it safe and settled on a Deep Pan Create Your Own pizza with extra ham and green peppers.

Yes, I would have indigestion for the rest of the day, thank you very much. That’s how I liked it.

Swerving the salad bar (a bullshit offering of sweetcorn and iceberg lettuce) I routinely plumped for this exotic carbgasm with unashamed joy and scoffery.

But I was about to have my head turned again on a visit to London at 16.

Its name was Pizza Express, it sat clicking its jazz fingers on Soho’s Dean Street - and it made the Hut look like a shouty chav after five cans of Kestrel.

“No, Bella,” it chided. “You have *not* been eating proper pizza all these years. You have been swallowing American non-food that will rot your insides and shame you in front of your Eurozone brethren.”

Eep. Each pizza had a shiny Italian name (except that cocky interloper La Reine) and tasted reassuringly foreign.

The bases were thin (I pretended not to be gutted) but the price point was too.

When I moved to London at 23, despite monthly earnings of naught but a bag of dust and feathers, I could still pay my way at Pizza Express.

And so P.E. became my favourite subject. It was the obvious, barely even questioned, choice to grab a bite before the cinema or take a long-suffering mum and dad.

On the weekend, it was my hangover safe space. The branch nearest me would play soft jazz and crank out central heating so intense it could suffocate The Fear at a thousand paces.

I would slope there to text mates - “Hey, I didn’t embarrass myself last night, did I? I mean I’m not bothered. But like DID I?” - and inhale dough balls.

My love and loyalty knew no bounds. But there has been treachery in return over the years.

Trying hard but moronically to diet in the early 2000s, I swapped out my American for the Pollo Salad.

“I’ll-have-the-Pollo-Salad-but-can-I-have-it-with-mozzarella-instead-of goat’s-cheese?” I would recite on demand.

Spearing olives and crunchy red peppers, I would smugly lord it over my pizza-eating pals and wait for the pounds to fall off.

Imagine my utter sense of betrayal when I learned croutons, dough sticks and ladles of in-house dressing made my plate bottom out at 954 CALORIES.

To make matters worse, they then took it off the menu. For years, I suffered. Wilderness years where I would listlessly order a lasagne and side salad.

Then - ignominy! - they brought the f*cker back but with added ‘Roquito pearls’. Which psychopath first suggested adding these shitty plastic beads to a single dish?

They look like Christmas decs and taste of Satan.

Head office began to get bad press too. In 2008, the chain was accused of not paying staff the minimum wage.

Two short years later, they decided to fleece the rest of us with the launch of the Leggera range.

The ultimate pisstake, we sleptwalked our way to paying full price for a pizza with a hole in it.

But for me, the final test of patience was the novelty Sunday Roast pizza - a nervous breakdown of beef, horseradish and roast potatoes that farted its way onto the Christmas menu in 2017.

It all felt so desperate, so basic. Suddenly Pizza Express - that cool cousin who Interrailed and smoked weed at their parents’ house - was the Next of eating out.

And so we come to 2019, and the news that Pizza Express has accrued £1.1bn debt.

Failing to keep up with a glut of high street rivals and a generation who'd rather order takeout, they are sinking.

And just like that, my childhood-into-adulthood rite of passage could be gone.

The reassuring mainstay of 20 years of refusing to cook for myself or my friends.

I came of age there. I learned to like olives there. I may even have tasted rocket for the first time on a PE plate.

Over the years, I have cried in Pizza Express (work trauma), flirted on dates (reader, I nearly married him) and even had my best ever New Year’s Eve (no, seriously) in its tiled-floor magnificence.

I owe it my undying devotion for decades of (almost) unwavering service.

So yes, Pizza Express may be in trouble, crippled by a lack of dough. They may eventually collapse as an uncaring nation taps once to get the Deliveroo moped bouncing its way to their front door.

But until then I shall continue to be a girl, sitting in front of a Sloppy Giuseppe, asking it to love her.


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