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The saucy history of Pizza Express: how one restaurant chain stole the hearts of a nation

The home of dough balls has maintained a cult-like following since 1965. Here’s how it all started

Pizza express logo with collage
Image: Time Out
Image: Time Out
Written by
Ellie Muir

If you grew up in London in the nineties or noughties, you’ll know there ain’t no party like a Pizza Express party. The striped chef hats, frigid marble tables and waiters holding that obnoxiously large pepper grinder made for an epic birthday celebration – but also, somehow, an appropriate place for a business dinner, family meal or date night. It was the stylish bourgeois meeting point that served up ‘Italian’ food with a clumsy British charm.

It was Peterborough entrepreneur Peter Boizot who first shipped over an authentic pizza oven from Rome to London, after deciding that the cheesy, doughy Italian creation was the most delicious thing he’d ever eaten. In 1965, Pizza Express served their first slices out of a window hatch on 29 Wardour Street, Soho, with plastic cutlery that melted in the cheese. With pizza at two shillings (10p) a slice, the takings were only £3. But once the menu had been finalised, actual chairs installed and metal cutlery brought in, London’s casual dining scene had been revolutionised.

A man holding a pizza
Photograph: Courtesy of Pizza ExpressPeter Boizot

First, a disclaimer. I’m a Pizza Express (or PX) superfan. Cut me and I bleed dough ball garlic butter. One of my earliest memories is standing in a stockroom at the back of Pizza Express Beckenham, as my parents made a shady deal with a waiter to buy a set of Peroni Nastro Azzurro pint glasses. I was high on life (and knickerbocker glory), stuffed with margarita pizza in a state of pure, carbed-up bliss. I spent many birthdays in that giddy state, entranced by the monochrome decor, epic spiral staircases and large Italian-inspired murals.

While some critics might claim that the chain has fallen from grace following the nasty closure of 73 branches in 2020, the institution still stands proud today with a strong fleet of 22 London restaurants and more than 500 worldwide. Its cool jazz line ups have become somewhat legendary (Pizza Hut could never), and let’s not get started on the dough balls. So how did we get here? This is the history of Pizza Express in London, as told by its employees, pizza experts, obsessive superfan punters and musicians, featuring real-life royalty, celebrities and a ‘floating cheese’ explosion. 

The first pizzeria opens

While other central London restaurants and caffs offered single slices of pizza and classic slap-up pasta dishes, Pizza Express was the first place committed to solely serving full-size pizzas. Since then, the brand’s pizza has been in its own lane. Today, it’s nothing like the airy, sourdough pizza you’ll find at newer, sexier chains like Pizza Pilgrims and Zia Lucia: the dough is sweet, almost sugary, baked thin with crispy crusts. There’s no pimped-up burrata here. It sounds simple, but back in 1965, it was revolutionary. 

Rob Weller, design director at Pizza Express: ‘The 1960s were really vibrant. It was that post-war mood where people were really getting their acts together and the restaurant scene started thriving. Pizza Express was a big part of that.’

Digby Fairweather, trumpet player in the in-house Pizza Express ‘All Stars’ jazz band, 1976: Peter Boizot brought a pizza oven here from Italy and built an empire. He was a real innovator.’

Rob: ‘When Peter arrived with the pizza oven at the restaurant on Wardour Street, he couldn’t get it through the door. He had to smash down the shopfront, install the oven and rebuild the shop. That was the ethos of Pizza Express back then, making things happen and pushing boundaries.’

Digby: Peter was very hands on. If you went into one of Peter’s premises, you could quite easily find him behind the chef’s counter, cooking a pizza or changing a light bulb. He was extremely well spoken and very amicable. At one point, he was well up in the hub of most rich, richest men in Britain. When I first got to know him, he was very chummy, aware of his wealth, obviously, but never flashy.’

Pizza Express Wardour Street, 1960s
Photograph: Courtesy of Pizza ExpressPizza Express Wardour Street, 1960s

Rob: ‘In 1967 Peter opened another restaurant on Coptic Street, Bloomsbury, with his designer Enzo Apicella who did the “Pizzeria” font. The restaurant virtually hasn’t changed since then, we’ve kept it how Peter opened it, almost like a Pizza Express museum. It’s got all the original artwork, the stained glass window and decor.’

Digby: ‘I heard a story about the late clarinettist-saxophonist Malcolm ‘Mac’, who played with a lot of well-known jazz groups and also worked as an assistant to Peter Boizot in his restaurant in Coptic Street. One evening, Malcolm got a call to play at short notice and contacted a friend to stand in for him at the restaurant. Unfortunately the friend didn’t know his way around and switched everything off at the mains when he left, including the refrigerators. When Peter arrived next morning he was greeted with an unwelcome pool of water, with cheese floating out of the front door.’

Rob: ‘The circular logo that you see in the window was created by [sculpture artist] Nancy Fouts back in 1967. The logo has stayed the same since. We change colours sometimes but we won’t go messing with it.’

The iconic menu

It’s called Pizza Express for a reason. Do not (I repeat not) order the pasta. Choose correctly, though, and you’ve got a three-course meal of champions. Obviously, start with dough balls: Pizza Express sells more than five and a half million portions of these every year, as their most popular starter. Then you can’t go wrong with an American Hot pizza and a finale of chocolate fudge cake. Bosh.

Josh Kirby, Pizza Express superfan: ‘The most genius thing about Pizza Express is the dough balls. It’s become a tradition in my family to order dough balls.’

Antenor Siqueira, former pizzaioli [pizza chef] and Innovation Manager at Pizza Express: ‘Our pizzaiolos invented our iconic dough balls by baking leftover pieces of dough and dipping them in garlic butter.’

American Hot pizza
Photograph: Courtesy of Pizza ExpressAmerican Hot pizza

Gerardo del Guercio, pizza connoisseur at Bite Twice food blog, who has reviewed more than 700 pizzas worldwide: Pizza Express’s cheesy garlic bread and dough balls are among some of the best in the world. Me and my now wife used to use the two-for-one vouchers all the time in our early days of dating for cheap eats. It has a special place in my heart.’

Liz Shanks, former employee, Bromley branch, 1990: Among colleagues, we could predict what pizzas people would order. But you could guarantee someone would always order an Americana or an American Hot. Pizza Express was quite forward thinking back in 1990. It was all from scratch so you knew it’s really good.’

Pizza Express pizza is the best I’ve ever had – I’ve even been to Naples and the pizza wasn’t quite the same

Josh: ‘Pizza Express pizza is the best I’ve ever had from a chain restaurant – I’ve even been to Naples and it wasn’t quite the same. I go to Pizza Express at least twice a month and I’m nearly a gold member on the app.’

Antenor: Our passata has been made by the Italian Greci family since 1965. We still have the original signed contract from Peter – it’s part of our heritage.’

Liz: ‘A few of the baked pasta dishes were created by people who worked there and were sick of eating pizzas. We were always trying to find a way to make the menu different as we were eating two pizzas each day sometimes.’ 

Gerardo: ‘[When Pizza Express introduced] the Romana pizza option [with the thinner, crispier base], it was a game changer. The new additions have moved with the times and are what pizza lovers go there for.’

Reinventing chain restaurants 

Unlike other branches, each Pizza Express restaurant feels different. One might be in an old church, another a former dairy and another on a disused bank vault. That said, its striped decor, spiral staircases and tiled floors continue to keep it recognisable. 

Malcolm Fraser, architect responsible for designing 13 Pizza Express restaurants: ‘The design meant that it wasn’t a place where people just went to get fed, people went with their families and actually enjoyed the experience. Pizza Express changed the way chains present themselves to the public – it showed that we can’t just be lazy and open anything and expect people to come.’

Inside Coptic Street Pizza Express
Photograph: Courtesy of Pizza ExpressCoptic Street Pizza Express

Bonnie Godsilformer waitress, London Bridge branch, 2002: ‘At the time, there weren’t really any mid-market restaurants. So you’d have all sorts, blokes taking their girlfriends out to dinner because it was pretty cheap. It was still stylish and you got good service. People felt like it was a night out. In London Bridge, the demographic was a real mix of people; tourists, city boys and a really mixed age range.’

Ella Doyle, longtime PX punter and Time Out Guides Editor: ‘When I was a kid, my family and I used to go to the big Pizza Express in Kentish Town that was in an old church. It had two storeys, live jazz and it was super kid friendly. The chefs would give us little pieces of dough to play with.’

Pizza meets jazz (and royalty)

Pizza Express has an unshakeable connection with Soho’s jazz scene. Its music club on Dean Street, Soho, opened in 1976, where many famous American musicians including Bud Freeman, Benny Carter and Tony Bennett, as well as popular singers like Van Morrison, Amy Winehouse and Sam Smith played to a margarita-scoffing crowd. Today, the business has three jazz venues across London and hosts live music seven nights a week.

Scott Hamilton and Warren Vache, 1979
Photograph: AlamyScott Hamilton and Warren Vache, 1979

Digby: ‘There were a lot of jazz clubs in London back in 1976. But the two biggest ones were the 100 Club [Oxford Street], and Ronnie Scott’s, down the road on Frith Street. The Pizza Express jazz club found a middleground. They booked all kinds of players who had been performing around America from the late 1920s to the early 1970s.’

Ross, music manager at Pizza Express: The Dean Street venue is oozing with history. Van Morrison, Sting, Jools Holland, Rick Wakeman, Charlie Watts, Dinah Crowl, Melody Gardot, Benny Carter and more have performed here.’

Digby: ‘We used to get lots of famous people come down [in the 1970s]. Princess Margaret was a regular visitor. She’d sit in a booth with a guardian. Tony Bennett used to sit with us, so did Ernie Anderson.’

Ed Black, London-based musician known as EDBL, who performed at Pizza Express Live 2022: ‘You have all those photos of Amy Winehouse, Jamie Cullum and Gregory Porter on the walls of the Dean Street jazz venue – all these people I’ve always been inspired by. It’s an honour to play at an institution that’s got such a rich jazz legacy.’

The Dean Street venue is oozing with history: Van Morrison, Sting, Rick Wakeman, Melody Gardot and Amy Winehouse have performed there

Digby: ‘Peter often named pizzas after special guests. There was a pizza Bud Freeman and a pizza Ruby Braff. Peter was extremely fond of jazz, although I wouldn’t call him an expert. He employed people to book the acts for him.’

Ross: ‘Amy Winehouse performed at the jazz club many times. I saw her perform not long before she died in 2011. She played unannounced as the last person to sing. She was charming, approachable, enthusiastic about playing and totally sober. Amy did forget her lines a little bit but that’s because she was digging out some old jazz standards. She was a bit rusty.’ 

The fate of Pizza Express in 2023

The news that Pizza Express nearly shut down after the Covid-19 pandemic was a nail-biting experience for the restaurant’s groupies. Things were looking rough for a while. And when the Woking branch was used as Prince Andrew’s alibi in his sexual assault lawsuit, the PR wasn’t looking great, either. But today, Pizza Express is thriving. Despite the closure of 73 branches, it’s routinely updating its menu while keeping the classics intact. A branch recently opened on Hackney’s Mare Street, while the Highgate branch reopened earlier this month with a snazzy refurbishment. 

Malcolm: ‘We recently refitted one [of the restaurants I designed] as a Franco Manca. It’s difficult when you get phoned up by another restaurant saying they’re ripping it out, asking if we can give them the original [interior] drawings, and you know that your baby is disappearing. We felt for every one of these jobs we did.’

Rob: We went through what they call a CVA [when an insolvent company relies on creditors]. We lost some restaurants and got refinanced, but that’s all kind of history now. The business is in a good place.’ 

Pizza Express Leadenhall Market
Photograph: ShutterstockPizza Express Leadenhall Market

Gerardo: Where most other Italian pizza chains have failed, like Carluccio’s or Jamie’s Italian, Pizza Express is still there and standing strong. They’re doing something right.’

Bonnie: ‘The menu is so similar back in 2002 to now. You can still get the dough balls, American hot pizza and chocolate fudge cake, though the brand has done a really good job at modernising over the years.’ 

Guercio: ‘The UK never really had a pizza scene but the last decade with the explosion of Franco Manca, which was built on the success of Pizza Express (and owned by David Page, former PX chief executive), we’ve seen a strong scene emerge. We wouldn’t have the pizza culture that’s emerging right now without it.’ 

Rob: ‘We’ve opened up restaurants around the world now. Spain, Singapore, China and India. There’s a new Tikka Paneer Romana on the menu because of the India branch.’

A man stanidng in front of Pizza Express
Photograph: Courtesy of Pizza ExpressPeter Boizot at Pizza Express Coptic Street

Josh: ‘Especially now in the cost of living crisis, if I want to go out for dinner with a friend, I’ll just go to Pizza Express. It’s somewhere nice to have a beer, have free dough balls, have a pizza and free drink and pay no more than £11 [if you have the app that gives discounts to loyal customers].’

Johnnie Tate, CEO of Yard Sale Pizza: ‘Pizza Express paved the way for the casual dining scene. Then came the supermarket range that was a huge part of my childhood. The margaritas, packets of dough balls and salad dressings – all were super delicious and successful.’

Antenor: ‘When Peter opened in Soho, it was all about providing excellent food and ambience at a price that wouldn’t break the bank. It’s the same today. Last year we launched pizza wraps for a quick bite on the go.’

Digby: ‘It’s still recognisable. The soul of Peter Boizot is in there, somewhere.’

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