The Radical Design of PizzaExpress
How one chain changed the way we eat. Words by Digby Warde-Aldam; Illustration by Sinjin Li
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Yesterday evening, I had the urge to do something I haven’t done in many, many years: go to PizzaExpress. I can’t remember the last time, except that I was just about old enough to consider the term ‘Sloppy Giuseppe’ too undignified to say aloud, and ordered something else from the menu I didn’t want instead. I went with my friend Rachel to the Coptic Street branch, formerly on the site of a dairy, which makes a nod to its past in the cold white tiles on the wall, but very little concession to any nostalgic form of Italian-ness. Instead, stained glassed windows, a colourful mural of a tree on the back wall with the names of the restaurant’s founder and designer written into its roots. It would have described it as modern and buzzy, if it wasn’t for the fact there was only one other table occupied.
“When was the last time you went to a PizzaExpress” I asked Rachel. “Not sure, but it must have been in Kent, with my parents”. “What about a Franco Manca?” “Monday” she said, apologetically (She doesn’t particularly like the pizzas but her sister was in town.) The line of embarrassment from PizzaExpress to Franco Manca is the entire life and death of British chains — from the cool first branch, to shorthand for being urbane, to nationwide ubiquity, to being derided. Perhaps it’s a British distrust of success. We don’t love our mid-level chains the same way the Americans seem to. Mention Dairy Queen, Olive Garden, Cold Stone, and they’ll get excited, will tell you their favourite combos, even if they think the food isn’t objectively that good. Yet many British chains have had zero impact on culture. What sort of psychopath can name any item of food at a Camden Food Co?
There are two big exceptions to this rule: Wagamama and PizzaExpress. What links them? Impeccable design. The story of Wagamama should be told in another newsletter, but everyone who was there when it opened mentions the revolutionary layout of the original Bloomsbury branch more than they do the food. And as Digby Warde-Aldam argues in today’s newsletter, PizzaExpress may be not be the force it once was but it’s the design of its restaurants that ensure it’s still loved in the British imagination. It’s the design of PizzaExpress, not the food, not the image of Italian nonnas in the Lazio countryside cooking cucina povera, that captured the urban and peri-urban British middle class.
What will be the next chain that changes the way we eat? I have an inkling. Rachel told me about her American colleague, who recently recommended a restaurant he had gone to, one with a similarly impeccable dining room. “It’s the best Indian restaurant in London,” he raved. What was it? “Oh, this small chain restaurant called Dishoom” JN
The Radical Design of PizzaExpress, by Digby Warde-Aldam
It’s hard to overstate how sophisticated the PizzaExpress in Petersfield, the Hampshire town where I spent most of my adolescence, seemed. Back then, in the early 2000s, Petersfield maintained a cultural parochialism that was determinedly and unironically backwards. If you wanted to eat out there, you had the choice of an ultra-trad curry house, a wine bar, a few crusty pubs and an all-purpose Chinese restaurant. Every one of these options seemed to cleave to a trinity of aesthetic values: dark little dining rooms, chintzy furniture and thick carpets flaked with a dandruff of crumbs.
PizzaExpress projected a different vision entirely. It was clean, bright and – by our then-standards – stylish, featuring black-and-white tiled floors, an open kitchen, marble-topped tables and imitation modernist chairs alongside spot lighting and a single rose for every table (real or fake, subject to availability), with cool jazz playing unobtrusively over the stereo. There was even an optimistic little terrazza outside, though any aspirations to a glamorous al fresco dinner were nullified by the fact it backed directly onto the Waitrose car park.
Regardless, a restaurant like PizzaExpress meant a lot to Petersfield. Where the town’s social hub might once have been a pub near the marketplace, it was now here – a vaguely chic setting to which parents could bring their children, and one that attracted none of the stigma attached to a chain establishment like McDonalds. For me, a layman – not much of a pizza fan but obsessively interested in appearances – it represented something to aspire to: a platonic ideal of what a restaurant should look like.
None of this was by accident. From its conception, PizzaExpress was a radical step for British restaurant culture; the food might not have been completely new, but the design of its outlets – from the furnishings and lighting to the art on the walls – had a profound impact on the way Britain’s restaurants looked and, by extension, who they catered to.
When Peter Boizot discovered pizza on a school-arranged trip to Florence in 1948, he instantly fell in love. ‘I thought it was the most delicious thing I’d ever eaten,’ he recalled in a 2016 interview. After national service, plus a quixotic series of short-lived careers and semi-itinerant stints in Europe, he found himself back in Britain, at a loose end, when a thought occurred to him: ‘I’d had a lot of pizzas in Rome but couldn’t find one in England. So I decided to open my own place.’ In 1965, seventeen years after eating his first pizza, he opened PizzaExpress on Soho’s Wardour Street.
Although Boizot couldn’t find a pizzeria in London, pizza in the UK was not, in fact, the novelty that established narrative would have us believe. Boizot’s restaurant wasn’t even the first place to serve pizza on the Soho site: the name ‘PizzaExpress’ belonged to a previous attempt to create a fine dining-style pizzeria, established by the Italian film producer Mario Zampi. The business failed and, seizing his opportunity, Boizot leapt in, buying it for either £10 or £100, depending on which source you believe.
White walls; fluorescent lighting; an open kitchen where rectangular pizzas were to be sliced into tranches, then served and eaten upright at the counter from paper plates: the design of the reborn PizzaExpress in Soho would have been familiar to anyone who ate in a Hackney or Williamsburg restaurant circa 2008. Everything was a simulacrum of Italy: the pizza oven had to be imported, setting Boizot back £600 – at least six times the amount he had paid for the premises themselves – and, in a first for the UK, it sold imported Peroni lager.
However, while the truck-stop dining system Boizot had envisaged might have worked in Naples, it didn’t translate to London. Customers crowded round the counter and lingered; a single slice consumed in one go didn’t sate Soho’s lunchtime appetite. On the advice of a friend, Boizot offered his customers the chance to ’eat with a knife and fork, and perhaps offer a round [pizza]’. He also, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, introduced seats, plates, metal cutlery and even a meat topping on one pizza (he was a life-long vegetarian). And it worked.
Two years later, Boizot was emboldened to open a second branch, this time on the premises of a former dairy on Bloomsbury’s Coptic Street. The basic idea from the Wardour Street branch would be replicated, but the decor was to be altogether more ambitious. The person Boizot commissioned for the job was Enzo Apicella, a self-taught Neapolitan graphic designer with a genius for bold gestures. Apicella’s work, as the design critic Stephen Bayley noted in his obituary, was informed not by any established Italian tradition, but rather an interest in contemporary styles, filtered through his own eccentric world view. He had made his mark on the London restaurant scene by redesigning the Trattoria Terrazza, an upmarket celebrity haunt in Soho. He did away with its formal airs, ripping out its thick carpets, shipping in contemporary furniture and giving the space a sheen of modernist cool. Trattoria Terrazza went on to become an unofficial dining room for London’s pop-cultural aristocracy: Michael Caine, Mick Jagger, Terence Stamp and David Bailey were all customers.
Boizot’s venture, however, presented a very different set of challenges, to be addressed on a significantly smaller budget. Apicella argued the case that the site should not resemble any pre-existing vision of an Anglo-Italian restaurant, the associations of which brought to mind visions of chianti bottles in wicker baskets and tourist posters of the Dolomites. Instead, it should be an entirely more modern proposal, one lit with spot lamps previously only really used in upmarket retail – Apicella had first encountered them in a boutique selling magazines – with acoustic discs attached to the ceiling to create a buzzy echo. A less rudimentary open counter was installed, visible from every table in the space so as to provide some inadvertent theatre for diners. The floor was paved with the black and white tiles that would become part of the chain’s signature livery.
Jonathan Meades, then a student at RADA, recalls that the restaurant’s break with aesthetic convention was notable. ‘At Coptic Street, there was an air in Apicella’s design of improvisation, probably to an extent from having a tight budget and making the best of what was [on] the premises already,’ he told me in September. Meades hazards that the chain’s art nouveau-inflected logo – a roundel filled with floral motifs and the restaurant name printed in a deeply decorative typeface – may well have owed something to the premises’ unusual facade. It was, after all, another Apicella design.
In the design of PizzaExpress, a fundamental divide between low and high culture had been breached. When Eduardo Paolozzi, himself a second-generation Leith Italian, designed a series of murals for a further, Apicella-designed branch on the Fulham Road in 1968 (allegedly on the condition he received a lifetime guarantee of free margheritas), it also became a venue for proper, institutionally-recognised pop art. At the same time, Terence Conran was trying to bring European modernism to the British high street, but his ventures – starting with the opening of The Soup Kitchen in Chelsea in 1954 – retained an air of exclusivity. PizzaExpress, however, was a truly egalitarian vision of luxury – one that, in its way, transcended the confines of social class.
In the decades that followed, PizzaExpress expanded its reach through inner London, its wealthier suburbs and deep into the south-east of England. But at the beginning of the 1990s, the chain was still a long way from high street ubiquity. Though its reach took in some 60 branches, most of them were concentrated around the capital; only one, in Glasgow, was in Scotland. Thanks to the rise of food TV, and restaurants like the River Cafe in Hammersmith and Alastair Little’s eponymous restaurant in Soho, Italian food was now hot property. PizzaExpress’s new CEO, David Page, saw the time was ripe for expansion.
Page was an unusual figure in the restaurant world. He had begun his career in hospitality working at PizzaExpress as a pot-washer in a Wimbledon branch and risen to become the holder of several of the chain’s west London franchises. In 1990, he had pounced on a buyout and been appointed the business’s chief executive.
One day, on a visit to Edinburgh to explore the viability of opening a branch, Page stopped in for lunch at one of the city’s few vegetarian cafes. He was impressed by the decor, leading him to ask for the designer’s details. ‘I was really quite surprised to be contacted,’ architect Malcolm Fraser, the man who received the call, told me in an interview last summer. ‘[Page] asked me if I’d like to design some restaurants for him… I didn’t think pizzerias were all that interesting, but PizzaExpress seemed a bit different.’
Page’s brief to Fraser gave him the kind of budget only a high-level corporate job could guarantee, but also an unusual degree of creative freedom. Up to this point, conventional wisdom had it that the words ‘sophisticated’ and ‘affordable’ did not mix, presupposing that potential diners would be confused by the merest sop to the avant-garde. Page’s brief, however, put faith in mid-market customers’ aesthetic discernment; as Fraser puts it, ‘moneymaking, populist architecture – contemporary, modern style for normal people at affordable prices.’ For a socially conscious architect intent on democratising ‘high’ culture – Fraser’s CV included both community projects and a stint at Little Sparta, the home-cum-micronation of the artist Ian Hamilton Finlay – the appeal was obvious.
Fraser had licence to play around, doing unusual things with polishes and plasters, unexpected counter-fronts and curves. His work for the brand took the experimental spirit of Apicella’s designs but dispensed with their exclamatory pop art trappings. Like much of the best architecture of the 1990s, there was little about Fraser’s PizzaExpresses that marked them out as products of their era; simple materials and sensitivity to place took precedence over other concerns. One of the few caveats was that the colour green was to be verboten, which had nothing to do with retail pseudo-science; for whatever reason, Page just hated it. Fraser’s memories of working for Page during this time are pretty wistful. ‘It was really quite interesting in the 1990s. I’ll sound pompous if I say something like “it was swish dining for the masses”, but I was very happy to be part of something that democratised that kind of culture… they were serving affordable food in modern buildings where the people running the show cared about contemporary aesthetics.’
Malcolm Fraser Architects would go on to design more than ten restaurants for PizzaExpress over the next decade, one of which – the fabulously odd branch on Deanhaugh Street in Edinburgh’s Stockbridge, crowned by a near-absurd Scots Baronial clocktower overlooking the Water of Leith – won several awards. While Edinburgh was no Petersfield – it had a fine tradition of Scots-Italian food in its own right – Fraser had created a dependable neighbourhood restaurant in a part of town that was sorely lacking in such things, all the while staying true to his brief. ‘There was something David said about the restaurants, and I think I quote from memory,’ he remembers. ‘He said: “If I catch you repeating yourself unnecessarily… I will fire you.”’
By the turn of the millennium, PizzaExpress had more than 250 branches in the UK, as well as a growing number overseas. Developments in the preceding decade had changed the average British consumer's relationship to restaurant culture and, by extension, their understanding of what constituted ‘good taste’. Over the course of this period, mid-market chains had well and truly conquered the British high street. ‘Before the 1990s, chain restaurants didn’t really exist in the same way,’ says Karen Jones, who co-founded rival group Café Rouge in 1989. Yet ‘there was a zeitgeist, and people were interested in eating out.’ Jones put this to the test in 1993, venturing beyond the well-to-do corners of the south-east to open a branch of Café Rouge in Birmingham. ‘We were only the second [sit-down, chain restaurant] to open there… and it was an immense success.’
Café Rouge’s ersatz gallicisms may have made a degree of sense, according to market demand, but the staggering number of Italian chains that opened between 1990 and 2010… less so. In the space of two decades, we saw our cities colonised by Prezzo, Bella Italia, Strada, Zizzi, Carluccio’s, Rossopomodoro, Jamie’s Italian and, alas, the same chef-proprietor’s ill-fated venture into ‘British flatbreads’. All were serving up much the same thing, in much the same sort of setting, for much the same price. Similarly, all borrowed liberally from PizzaExpress’s aesthetic template, often to the extent that various competing chains could be all but indistinguishable.
Yet still, PizzaExpress stood out. ‘Only Hannibal Lector would conceivably have a favourite Café Rouge or All Bar One,’ AA Gill wrote in a 1999 Sunday Times article, ‘but everyone has a favourite PizzaExpress.’ There was a sense that the restaurants represented a kind of neutral, go-to meeting place for anything that could have been considered ‘polite society’ – they combined an unfussy modernist chic with what the industry likes to call a ‘family-friendly’ atmosphere. PizzaExpress had become – in writer Keith Miller’s words – ‘the good chain’: a chain restaurant for people who didn’t like chain restaurants.
In October 2019, PizzaExpress revealed that it owed more than £1 billion to various creditors and was at risk of folding, prompting many a calzone-themed Twitter joke. By now, the chain counted 470 UK branches, but David Page had long since departed, and the business was majority-owned by a Chinese venture capital firm whose investment, with hindsight, looks rather optimistic. Having become ubiquitous to the point of inescapability, the UK’s ‘casual dining’ restaurants have since suffered heavy losses, with some – most notably Jamie Oliver’s mini-empire of chains – collapsing entirely.
If PizzaExpress’s plate-glass storefronts, monochrome interior deco and enthusiastic appropriation of art nouveau typefaces had seemed quietly disruptive in the Petersfield of 2002, its polished, quasi-moderne aesthetic is now looking just as tired as the design of my local branch’s competitors back then. Although the financial crash of 2008 played its role in changing customer behaviour, perhaps what’s even more important is that our perception of what constitutes ‘good taste’ has moved on. PizzaExpress and its ilk could be said to have embodied it for something approaching two decades but, as with so many tenets of the post-Cold War consensus, the ground had shifted.
Newcomers deployed equally pronounced signifiers to mark their difference from the previous generation of chains. Opened in 2009, Russell Norman’s Polpo meticulously recreated the airs of Venetian cicchetti bars. Leon went all-out on the whimsy front, borrowing fonts from pre-war product adverts and making extensive use of found photos and old tourist posters. At MEATliquor, PizzaExpress’s ethos of bright lighting and monochrome colour schemes, which rendered the merest slick of dirt visible from anywhere in the restaurant, was reversed to create dining rooms lit as dimly as possible; Kind of Blue-era Miles Davis and bottles of chianti found themselves sidelined in favour of ear-shredding metal and ‘lageritas’. Indeed, ‘good taste’ is at least cosmetically starting to look a lot like what we used to call ‘bad taste’: restaurant designers are once again embracing kitsch, only this time knowingly.
This successive wave of ‘casual dining’ chains may have swerved the direct aesthetic legacy of PizzaExpress, but their own visual branding communicates much the same message: that anyone can pass through their doors to enjoy decent food and service without being judged. Perhaps the chain that embodies this most of all is PizzaExpress’s upstart competitor, Franco Manca, which sells much the same product but has adopted a studiedly casual look apparently derived from a demand for ‘rustic authenticity’ – precisely the sort of thing that Apicella’s early restaurants consciously swerved. Wood has replaced marble as the surface of choice for tables; in place of art nouveau typefaces come menus in a font that looks like it’s been scrawled on with a sharpie. Yet while the chain may differ in aesthetic terms, it shares remarkably similar DNA; indeed, Franco Manca has become the host to the spirit of its predecessor’s as-yet-undead body.
Peter Boizot and Enzo Apicella died within weeks of each other in 2018. By the time of his death, Apicella had designed dozens of restaurants for PizzaExpress around the UK, before finally parting ways with the chain in the early 2000s. Among his final commissions were a series of colourful murals in the Chiswick, Wimbledon and Guildford branches of Franco Manca. In February 2022, Malcolm Fraser’s most celebrated contribution to the PizzaExpress empire – the Deanhaugh Street branch – announced its permanent closure. Yet Fraser, too, has been commissioned by Franco Manca, and recently transformed the defunct Deanhaugh Street PizzaExpress into a branch of its rival. The current CEO of Franco Manca, coincidentally, is one David Page.
Digby Warde-Aldam writes the art section for The Week and much else besides. He is (very slowly) working towards producing a book-length text on the design of British chain restaurants.
Sinjin Li is the moniker of Sing Yun Lee, an illustrator and graphic designer based in Essex. Sing uses the character of Sinjin Li to explore ideas found in science fiction, fantasy and folklore. They like to incorporate elements of this thinking in their commissioned work, creating illustrations and designs for subject matter including cultural heritage and belief, food and poetry among many other themes. Previous clients include Vittles, Hachette UK, Welbeck Publishing, Good Beer Hunting and the London Science Fiction Research Community. They can be found at www.sinjinli.com and on Instagram at @sinjin_li
Vittles is edited by Jonathan Nunn, Rebecca May Johnson, and Sharanya Deepak, and proofed and subedited by Sophie Whitehead.
Hugely grateful to Jonathan and the rest of the Vittles team for commissioning this and investing so much time and effort into making it readable. Important addendum to the piece: aside from the Pizza Expresses namechecked here, my favourite branches are those at Notting Hill Gate, Newcastle (Dean Street, now I think closed) and London Wall (ditto, tragically). The last was suspended directly above the road itself, and had an amazing, Blade Runner-ish view over Moorgate and the Barbican estate. Of the Fulham Broadway one - in which the urinal in the gents' was positioned right next to a street-facing, floor-to-ceiling window - the less said, the better.
Fully GASPED when the first Pizza Express described was my own childhood Pizza Express in Petersfield. I walked past it over Christmas and felt weirdly sad about how empty it was and how it had been the absolute height of sophistication for me as a young teen. It was the aspirational dining equivalent of those Ferrero Rocher towers in early noughties TV ads. My favourite Pizza Express is the one right on Lendall Bridge in York (if it's still there). Wonderful piece 💛