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For many of us, food has always been wrapped up with a healthy dose of nostalgia.
I like to think that we all believe our Dad’s roast potatoes have no equal, our Nan makes the best shortbread, and our friend’s mum really can’t do scrambled eggs just the way we like them.
It’s a little bit of modern tribalism, a golden-tinged glimpse back into the past to rosier times when food seemed to appear out of an ethereal fog, heralded by your parents cries to ‘come get it before it’s cold’.
Recently, pizza has taken that to a new level. The overwrought “just like Uncle Luigi made it” trope has been retired, and our heads have been turned to gaze hungrily back into the past. Gas and electric ovens have been discarded for wood, deep-pan has been cast aside for the classic roman-style thin crust, and I can’t help but assume that Italy’s economy has skyrocketed from the dramatic increase in locally sourced ingredients being shipped over to fuel our flatbread addiction.
Nestled deep in the heart of Spitalfields, one of London’s most convivial hotspots, Pizza Union seems to bring the industrial revolution to this olden time nostalgia. A colossal neon lion with the words ‘superveloce italiana’ emblazoned beneath it draws the eye, proudly watching over his domain. The towering walls are made of weathered, seemingly scorched breezeblocks, and old ventilation piping weaves its way through confused ducting. These immense premises feel more like a factory than a restaurant.
All that negative space simply serves to draw my eye to the master of this thin-crust temple. Pizza Union’s glowing heart is a colossal, wood-fired brick oven. It seems to be a distillation of the idea of a pizza oven, stripped of beauty to expose its raw efficiency. The wave of heat thrown out reaches us even at the entrance, inexorably drawing us closer. We order our pizzas, slightly fearful of the oven’s wrath. Pizza Union’s speciality is rapidly churning out almost unfathomable quantities of food for hungry bankers and students. Manager Luciano proudly informs me that during their busiest period (Friday lunch), this well oiled machine manages to produce an astonishing five hundred pizzas in just two hours. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that in less than four minutes, our pizzas flee from the omnipresent inferno and are presented to us, still smoking, with cheese crackling from the heat.
We acquire a decadent selection of additional toppings, dipping sauces, oils and the essential pepper grinder. The first bite yields pleasantly to my teeth. The crust, or ‘cornicione’ if you’re channelling your inner Neapolitan, is light and airy, with a defined crunch. The centre of the dough has a pleasant softness to it, and lacks the greasy stodginess of other cut-price take-out contenders. I’m impressed by my pizza, the ‘Calabrian’. The n’duja sausage is spicy and soft, the peppery rocket and slightly sweet mascarpone mingling to give a wonderful gooeyness to my slice. I like the accompaniments as well: the garlic dip is thick and tangy, the chilli oil adds necessary heat to compliment the sweetness of the mascarpone, and an oregano shaker is a nice touch.
My partner is less impressed with the ‘Giardino’, a vegetarian option topped with spinach, mixed peppers, artichoke, black olives and mushrooms. The toppings aren’t particularly generous, and without the right-hook of the sausage to add punch it falls a little bit flat. However, when you’re paying £5.95 for a 12” pizza, you don’t feel cheated, it just feels fair. A Peroni comes in at £2.80, which is unheard of in Central London, outside of the off-licence, and a bottle of the house wine is just £11.50.
As we’re finishing up with our main meals, Luciano dashes out to showcase Pizza Union’s party-piece, the ‘Dolce’; a ring of stretched dough, folded around a smeared mess of nutella and mascarpone, decadently dusted with powdered sugar and cocoa. The first bite is chewy, overwhelming and rich. It’s an interesting experiment, and it tastes good; I can imagine stumbling in at 2am for one of these after a heavy night out. After the carb-rich pizza however, we only manage a few bites each before wearily collapsing back into our chairs.
Pizza Union is not gourmet cuisine, but it doesn’t try to be. The neon lion, the low prices, and the continuously booming music as you queue all conspire to leave me with a lasting impression. This is what you want from take-out- it’s cheap, it’s fast, and it’s fun. It’s not the pizza you dreamily remember from when you were a child, but it might just put a smile on your face when you’re running past in need of a quick bite. It certainly did for me.
Pizza Union is at 25 Sandy’s Row, Spitalfields, London E1 7HW. See www.pizzaunion.com
Pizza Union review by Will Squires