Pizza’s origins can be traced back to the Romans and yet it remained a regional speciality in Naples for many years before making its way up the Italian peninsula. Known as a dish for the impoverished in 16th-century Naples, pizza was originally sold in the streets. My first experience eating authentic pizza was in Rome, while standing in front of the gates to the Vatican. Street vendors were selling rectangles of pizza from cast iron pans, sold by weight, and topped with braised artichokes hearts and mint, or with ripe figs and honey. I remember this clearly as this was also the day I saw two giant turtles on leashes that were being sold on the street. Pizza was a part of my childhood growing up in Toronto in a neighbourhood with a large diaspora Italian community. I could differentiate the good from the mediocre at an early age.
Pizza tastes best when baked in a wood-fired oven, because only then will the necessary temperature of about 750 degrees Fahrenheit (400 degrees Celsius) be achieved. The pizza is ready for serving when the base is crisp and crusty, and the cheese has melted thoroughly. Professional pizza makers, known as pizzaiolio or pizzaiole, always stretch the dough with their hands. There’s nothing more satisfying than a thin crust Neapolitan style pizza that is blistered with an inflated raised rim, which in Italy is lovingly referred to as the cornicione. This is high level pizza-making and connoisseurs know that it takes skill and timing to achieve this type of perfect crust in a sizzling hot wood-fired oven.
Pizzeria Madre (madre meaning mother in Italian) in London’s up and coming SoHo district is one of London’s best kept culinary secrets. Restaurateur/chef Matt Reijnen’s and restaurateur/service professional Jessica Washburn’s Pizzeria Madre is situated in a 130-year-old building on Wellington Street and offers an exceptional dining experience. This licensed, casual contemporary pizzeria is sophisticated and nicely appointed with high ceilings, tile floors, picture windows, whitewashed walls and a partially open kitchen. The custom-made bar and tables are made with locally-sourced pine. There are two chalkboards featuring beers and specialty cocktails.
Pizzeria Madre meshes with the culinary world’s continuing reverence for all foods that are authentically and gastronomically Italian, which is something this city has in short supply. Reijnen’s (who you may remember as the long-time talented chef at Milos’ Craft Beer Emporium) and sous-chef Paul Owen’s well-thought-out toppings at Pizzeria Madre are seasonal and artisanal, expertly combined and balanced. The ratio of crust to toppings is perfect. Naturally leavened sourdough is a passion for Reijnen. In addition to pizza dough, also on offer is naturally-leavened bread made with wheat, spelt and rye blends with an excellent crumb.
Sharing/small dishes are laden with seasonal and iconic Italian ingredients. A green bean salad with roasted corn, arugula, pecorino and lemon-chile dressing was a sensational seasonal dish, as are warm Castelveltrano olives with roasted peppers and almond oil or with toasted chile and dried lime oil, and Romaine salad with pecorino, cavalo Nero, cured egg yolk, bread crumbs and smoked balsamic dressing. What about trying their version of Garlic Toast with mashed chickpeas, lemon and chile, and topped with thin slices of folded mortadella — a true classic? Or how about trying the charred Charcoal Grilled Cauliflower with puffed rice, smoked egg yolk emulsion and salsa verde? Speck, an air-dried ham, has bit of smoke and a bit of salt and is paired with pear mostarda and fresh hazelnuts, and makes a refreshing antipasto.
We have sampled many pizzas from the ever-changing menu and all have offered amazing flavour combinations, with perfect crust made from naturally leavened pizza dough and baked in a custom-made, igloo-shaped Malagutti Pizza Oven from Modena, Italy. They have included Marinara with tomato, garlic, oregano, pepper and olive oil; Nduja (spicy, spreadable pork salumi from Italy) with tomato, fior di latte (semi-fresh cow’s milk cheese made in the style of fresh mozzarella), roasted corn, Parmigiano and breadcrumbs; Carbonara with cream, black pepper, shaved onion, guanciale (cured meat from delicious pork jowl and cheek) and pecorino. “Patata” with shaved potato, fontina, cream, rosemary, chile and Parmigiano is a knock-out. There is an excellent Margherita, and the Neapolitan-inspired pizza follows all the essential criteria — tomato, fior di latte, basil and olive oil. For funghi lovers the mushroom pizza features Shogun maitake, cremini, cream and Parmigiano. What about Steam Clams with white wine, butter, chili flakes and garlic? Are you getting hungry? Other flavours have included Calabrese, Cacciatorino and Sugo
A trio of warm zeppole, a deep fried Italian-inspired fritter topped with powdered sugar, is served with a side of thick and creamy lemon curd cream or on another occasion chocolate hazelnut ricotta. An open-face S’more consists of a hard graham wafer, thick chocolate ganache and gooey brûléed and blistered house-made marshmallow. A deconstructed tiramisu showcases the kitchen’s strengths.
Pizzeria Madre features a rotating local craft beer selection and a modest but good and reasonably priced wine list. They know how to make a good Negroni. There is a sixteen-seat seasonal patio, on-street parking and a small parking lot beside the restaurant. Service is genuinely warm, intelligent and attentive. This is a modern day Mom and Pop business (Jessica and Matt have a 17-month-old daughter) operated by talented professionals who deserve to be supported and celebrated.
Some nights the restaurant feels like an upscale neighbourhood local with its sociable and convivial ambience, other times it has a hipster-millennial vibe, and I swear you could be in downtown Toronto, the Beaches or Montreal.
111 Wellington Street, London
Tuesday to Saturday, 5pm–10pm
Photographer Phong Tran is a student in Fanshawe’s Advanced Photography Program. He has been profiled by Elle MAN in his home country of Vietnam after the success of a documentary he produced last summer. This past year, he gained experience serving a co-op with Take5 Digital and the Lavery Culinary Group.