words Peter Bond
It’s a pizza joint, right! There’s a pizza joint on every corner in London. If you’re unlucky, a kid gets a pizza out of the fridge and ovens it to death. If you’re lucky, the cook pulls some dough around, covers it with tomato and cheese and puts a few pinches, from an assortment of Tupperware containers, on top.
Slung into a hot oven for a few minutes and bish-bash-bosh there’s your pizza. After a hard day or a few… er… pints, it deals with the munchies. Who cares? What’s there to say about yet another pizza place?
Well, quite a bit apparently. The pizzas (yeah, I couldn’t leave it at just one) at Circle Pizza don’t taste the same as my local corner joint. They have real flavour, they have surprising texture and they taste like food and not fuel – very good food too. Just what the hell is going on in Hoxton Square?
“Fashionable” and “ever trendy” are just two of the accolades that have been heaped on Hoxton Square in Shoreditch, N1. It’s certainly relaxing to be in a garden square in this part of London which is a sea of converted warehouses and industrial units nearer to the bright lights and busy scene of silicon roundabout than the quiet, leafy, gentrified squares in the West. Hoxton Square itself hosts a number of restaurants, clubs and bars mostly attracting twenty-somethings, meeting friends and out for a good time. Circle Pizza is the “kitchen” element of Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen which also contains a long bar and a music venue on the very large ground floor of this four storey converted commercial building.
The first good point is that this pizza restaurant is independent and not one of the more boring London pizza restaurants that are part of a chain and none of the usual pizza advertising tricks. On a nice evening you can sit outside (yes, there are heaters) and people-watch or just take in the atmosphere of the square.
Secondly, the head chef, Anatoli Kolev (Tony) is a bit of a legend. Silver medallist at the World Pizza Championship in Rome 2012 plus a string of other culinary achievements, Tony has some serious game and has worked for and trained many pizza chefs in London and globally. He brings his own spicy fennel sausage recipe (used in two of the pizzas here), plus ingredients sourced from Italy, to add to his 3rd generation sourdough.
Service at Circle Pizza was both attentive and friendly and my companion and I were seated and handed menus as soon as we entered. The décor is simple and basic rather than shabby chic. Not so much of a design philosophy as a brand value since the same concrete, visible pipework and old vestry chairs treatment is accorded the rest of the establishment. Corona beer bottles, lit from behind, line a whole wall and also fill large glass fridges, reminding me of the historic Brettos bar & distillery in Athens.
The menu is short with just eight types of pizza on offer priced between £7 and £11 each. You won’t have to spend hours poring over the wine list either. There are two reds and three whites plus a few beers and soft drinks. This simplicity is refreshing. I’d rather they mastered the basics than fell over their feet trying to be everything to everyone.
Circle says its pizza bases are made with a 150 year old sourdough starter sourced from the home of pizza – Naples, Italy. Although I imagine you’re preparing to cough b*** s*** at that statement, it is likely to be true. Most artisan bakers and pizza chefs are very proud of their starter dough and spend considerable time feeding and growing it – don’t worry, they only add flour and water, natural yeasts and bacteria in the flour does most of the work. They use a little of the starter dough as the base of their sourdough breads and pizza bases. Sourdough starters are often passed down the generations maintaining a sense of pride for and consistency of the family’s products. A sourdough starter can take more than a week to produce since no yeast is added and the natural fermentation produces a miracle dough, slightly sour to the taste, said to minimise gluten/insulin problems for diabetics, reduce the incidence of coeliac’s disease, be less likely to cause food intolerances and be great to eat.
Joanna Blythman, award winning journalist and author of “What to eat” says: “Sourdough is more digestible than standard loaves and more nutritious too. Lactic acids make the vitamins and minerals in the flour more available to the body by helping neutralise the phytates in flour that would interfere with their absorption. The acids slow down the rate at which glucose is released into the blood-stream and lower the bread’s glycaemic index (GI), so it doesn’t cause undesirable spikes in insulin. They also render the gluten in flour more digestible and less likely to cause food intolerance.”
At Circle Pizza, a small amount of their starter dough is mixed with flour and water and, once proved for a further 24 hours, is ready to make pizza. Sourdough is the most natural form of bread or pizza base, so next time your mum chastises you for eating pizza, you can tell her how much good it’s doing you!
What I do know is that Circle’s pizza bases are gorgeous. Light and delicious with a crispy crust.
Unusually for a pizza restaurant, there’s a lot of detail on the menu covering what’s in the toppings as well as the source of the ingredients. Tony’s experienced hands are all over this. You’ll notice that, with the exception of the Margherita, all the pizzas have names you are unlikely to have come across before. This is not just a bit of re-naming fun, these are seriously new creations using fabulous ingredients sourced mainly from Italy.
I first tried the wild mushroom. “Dark Side of the ‘Shroom”, it’s called. A veggie pizza – there are two on the menu. The description starts with San Marzano tomatoes (deemed by many chefs to be the best plum tomatoes in the world), fresh mozzarella, a marinated mix of wild mushrooms, homemade ricotta cream and sundried tomatoes. There is a definite hit of tomato-y-ness and the sauce is creamy and cheesy on first bite. Unfortunately, the marinated, delicious, wild mushrooms struggle to make themselves known. Sorry Tony, but in my view there were nowhere near enough mushrooms on my pizza to make their delicate flavours stand out amongst the other ingredients.
My companion went straight for the “Diavola” (even the name is devilish) which features scotch bonnet chillies – one of the hottest chillies from the Caribbean, Tony’s homemade spicy fennel sausage, friarielli (Italian wild broccoli) and scamorza cheese (a smoked cheese like Provolone). Luckily, the menu does warn wimps like me to stay clear – and I heeded the warning since previous encounters with these chillies have laid waste to my taste buds, in fact left me sweating profusely and my head physically numb for an hour or more. A sucker for punishment and to the unrestrained mirth of my friend, I did nibble a bit of the crust and even a piece of the spicy fennel sausage before admitting defeat. My companion said the pizza was (only) medium hot, with the chillies lending the tomatoes a piquancy missing from the milder pizzas. The spicy fennel sausage was a meat lover’s dream and the friarielli added a cool green crunchy texture and flavour. The scamorza bathed the other ingredients in a smoky deliciousness. If you like your food on the spicy side, apparently the Diavola is the way to go.
In the interests of research, I next set about “Rocket Man” – the prosciutto (San Daniele, again widely regarded as the best prosciutto you can buy) and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is beautifully offset by the strong peppery rocket leaves. The crunchy texture of the leaves also works well against the rich creamy base of the sweet San Marzano tomato and mozzarella.
So moreish are these pizzas that my companion also found room for another. “Capo’s” has mafia connotations and with three types of meat – ‘Calabrian nduja, salame piccante and spicy fennel sausage – this was always going to be the meat feast of the short but varied menu. Both the ‘nduja and the salami have the spicy notes of paprika but markedly different textures whilst the chef’s homemade fennel sausage is clearly the boss with the secret blend of herbs and spices giving it a real kick. This meaty masterpiece is again bathed in the delicious sauce made by combining San Marzano tomatoes with fresh mozzarella. The whole topping is delightfully lifted with the addition of fresh basil.
With pizzas of this high quality, either a starter or dessert would have been superfluous – in fact, we managed just an espresso which helped lift us from our seats prior to a (rather slow) meander around the Square on our way home.