By Zofia Niemtus
Did you know there’s a Franco Manca in Westfield? Westfield. It feels wrong. Giuseppe Mascoli’s pizzas are crafted – the sourdough is left to ferment for at least 20 hours before being topped with simple, high-quality ingredients. They are the stuff of Brixton food legend.
It seems weird, then, to think of them competing with Spud-U-Like and Harry Ramsden’s to refuel the patrons of the UK’s third largest mall. So what happened? Has the exacting Mascoli gone bland?
“Shopping centres are awful places,” he declares. “They should be torched.”
We are sitting in Wild Caper, the coffee shop overlooking his Brixton Market restaurant and its ever-present queue, talking about the rise and rise of the business, which now has 10 branches across the capital. Mascoli is many things – opinionated, funny, wordy – but on the topic of Westfield, he is pragmatic: “Shopping centres exist,” he shrugs. “It is something we had to try, but I don’t enjoy them.”
The first Franco Manca opened in Brixton Market in 2008, alongside a fishmongers’ (which is still open), a mobile phone stall (which is not) and lots and lots of empty shop fronts. Two months later, the restaurant expanded to the shop opposite, doubling its capacity. Then branches appeared in Chiswick, Dulwich, South Kensington, even, as of 2013, Tottenham Court Road. And Westfield. Three more are set to open this year in Bermondsey, Ealing and Covent Garden (no shopping centres).
So is Mascoli hoping to recreate the spirit of the Brixton original in the new venues? “We try to,” he says, “but every place is different.” I ask if he has a favourite of the other sites and he thinks for a long time. “No,” he says, finally. “Brixton is special.”
He still lives here, in the house he bought two decades ago. He tells me, without cheer, that it has quadrupled in value in that time – and that he has strong opinions about the changes Brixton has seen over the same period. Mascoli came to London in 1989 as an assistant lecturer at the London School of Economics and it is the language of finance that drives a rant about the area being “held to ransom by speculators”.
He talks animatedly about jubilee – the biblical method of leasing land for 49 years before all debts are written off. He recommends that I read John Ruskin’s 19th century anti-capitalist essay Unto This Last. He argues at length in favour of rent caps and against the notion that they would inhibit business. “Is it better to have Labour crooks or Conservative crooks in charge?” he asks, shaking his head.
As the cost of everything else in Brixton has soared, Mascoli has kept his prices low – remarkably so. His most expensive pizza is £6.95 and the cheapest is £4.50, about the same as a frozen number from the supermarket. Which is where the similarity ends.
Franco Manca pizzas are cooked for 40 seconds in a wood-burning oven at 500 degrees. They are prepared by pizzaiolos using the traditional method that Mascoli learned at his family home in Naples. And how do his efforts compare with the originals? “Mine are better,” he smiles.
He has previously spoken about being “elitist” with his flavours. You will not find a Meat Lover’s special in Franco Manca. No crust will be stuffed. Instead, diners have six options, from a simple tomato and garlic to the more complex broccoli, mozzarella and sausage. The menu is updated with the seasons and Mascoli sees no need to offer a bigger range.
“I am against freedom,” he says. “Freedom of choice is a bad thing. Have you been to a salad bar?”
The problem with salad bars, as with life, he explains, is that people fill up their plates with a bit of everything. Too many ingredients that don’t work together.
“What you need,” he continues, “is someone to say, ‘I have thought a lot about salad. These are the leaves that go well together and this is the drink you should serve it with.’”
People need to develop critical minds, he adds, rather than simply being “funnels”.
So where will Mascoli’s taste mission end? Will the ever-growing popularity of his pizzas mean that we’ll one day be able to pick up a Franco Manca in Tesco? “Oh yes,” he deadpans. “After I am dead.”
Zofia tweets at @zofcha