When Peter Boizot opened the first PizzaExpress in London's Soho district in 1965, he hit upon a successful formula of tasty, high end pizza at an affordable price.
Years later the business he founded has grown into a mighty chain of 430 national outlets, including of course the newly refurbished restaurant at 23 Bond Street just a stone's throw from Ealing Broadway.
Stepping inside the restaurant shortly after the revamp in July, my family and I were impressed to find it light and airy, with good use made of the available space. The pictures adorning the walls are reclaimed from Ealing Studios, adding a nod to the history of the local area.
What was most impressive, beyond the food (which was of the usual high standard) was the welcome we received. PizzaExpress Ealing is something of a contradiction – its a chain with all of the familiar uniformity of menu and décor that this entails, but with the heart and charm of an independent or family-run restaurant. It's a good combination, and one that should stand it in good stead in this area of town where competition is fierce.
The difference that makes the difference is manager Zari Arfaei and her team. She stopped by our table for a friendly chat in between courses and later showed me around. Zari joined PizzaExpress around a decade ago and worked her way up from waitress to manager, and her passion for the restaurant and Ealing in general was clear to see.
We started our afternoon visit in the best way with servings of dough balls with butter dips and salad. These are a mainstay PizzaExpress starter and delicious, as well as being not too filling that you might struggle to find room for the main course.
On past visits I've tended to play safe and order the American Hot pizza which I know never fails to disappoint, but this time, at the suggestion of the waiter I decided to be daring and sample Calabrese – billed as the house's hottest pizza. It is a coming together of chopped red chillies, peppers, spicy sausage, and oregano topped off with mozzarella and rocket – and it proved to be a great choice.
As you would expect it is not suited to all pallets but definitely one to try if you are a fan of spicy (or even imaginative) pizza.
My wife ordered the Bruschetta and Grand Chicken Caesar main, washed down with a Rose wine that she told me was among the best she had tasted in a long while. For the children – two boys aged seven and five – the Piccolo menu was just the trick. Parents may like to know that its £6.50 for three courses, which includes a dough ball and cucumber starter, a main child sized pizza, a drink and an ice cream desert. And my two appreciated the activity sheet, pencils and stickers which kept them amused while we waited for our mains.
The children were invited to step over to the kitchen area to have a go at creating their own pizza. This is a treat usually reserved for the popular PizzaExpress children's birthday parties but as it was quiet my sons were invited to don hats and aprons, and they really enjoyed the experience. They learned about ingredients and preparation techniques and that the oven is heated to 400 degrees (at that temperature everything cooks pretty quick) and afterwards my seven year old informed me that he had decided he didn't want to go to school next week, but wanted to take the duty manager up on his suggestion that he come and work at the restaurant!
PizzaExpress was an early pioneer of the 'open kitchen' approach where food is prepared in the dining area within easy view of the diners, allowing customers to see the chefs at work. It says a lot about the confidence and openness of the restaurant that it wants its guests to see the high standard of its kitchen area and the skills of the chefs.
The Ealing restaurant has been serving up its fresh, handmade pizza to locals since 1995 and is, I'm told, a popular starting point for people heading into Central London for a show or a night out. It can work out more expensive than its main rival Pizza Hutt, but in my experience a quick search online will usually turn up a money-off voucher.
With summer in full swing it is offering a seasonal menu with Leggera Summer Salad and summery desserts – Strawberry and Cream Glory and Lemon and Blueberry Glory; we sampled The Hugo – a refreshing cocktail made with Prosecco, mint leaves, elderflower and a slice of lemon over ice.
Zari, the manager, informed me that the Ealing restaurant runs free visits for local primary schools to teach about cooking and nutrition, underlining that the team sees itself as part of the community. As well as ensuring younger visitors are well catered for, the top floor, accessed via a spiral staircase, is available for hire by adult private parties.
We left having enjoyed a satisfying meal and an enjoyable experience.
PizzaExpress Ealing is at 23 Bond Street, W5 5AS. Call 020 8567 7690 to book.