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What is London Pizza?
An interview with Pamela Yung of ASAP Pizza
“The mistake you’re making Jonathan” academic and part-time pizza whisperer Vaughn Tan tells me, over a the remnants of a mortadella and red pesto pie “is that you see pizza as the product of cities, when actually you should see it as the product of the person making it”
I’ve always seen pizza as the pre-eminent food of cities; when we talk about pizza we must amend and prefix it with Roman pizza, Neapolitan pizza, New York, Detroit, St Louis, New Haven pizza, Chicago deep-pan. More recently you can talk about Tokyo pizza, Sao Paolo pizza, Buenos Aires pizza. I have often wondered if there is a London pizza, although I have found most attempts to define this unsatisfactory.
Maybe the closest someone came to pinning London pizza down was writer (and Vittles contributor) Claire Finney, who wrote an article for Foodism in which she profiled 3 or 4 pizzerias using unconventional toppings, severing the link with Italy and arguably creating - if not a city style - then certainly pizzas that could only exist in London. My only problem with the piece is that I didn’t think any of the pizzas were that great.
I’ve found this an unfortunate flaw in the London food scene, compared to, say, New York, where something great is immediately identified, iterated on and adopted by the market. Here we are too slow at identifying greatness; we’re content to laud pizzerias that are shadows of Naples, promoting wrongheaded ideas about authenticity (fuck your imported seawater) and not allowing anything new to flourish. So it’s worth saying: the pizzas that Pamela Yung is currently making at Flor under the guise of ASAP Pizza are maybe the first truly great pizzas in London. And you have one more week left to try them.
ASAP has been one of the few new restaurant brands created during lockdown, taking up the space of James Lowe and John Ogier's second restaurant Flor in Borough Market. When ASAP was announced with Pam at the helm, even though she has a lot of pizza pedigree (staging at Pizzarium in Rome, holding pizza parties at her former 1* restaurant Semilla) I think the reaction of most people was to see it simply as a pivot to bring in some much needed income. The press release promised ‘London-centric’ pizzas although the menu seemed fairly Italian; some people almost certainly wrote it off as a posh restaurant putting posh stuff on bread.
The first pizzas I had at ASAP were good. I think there was a general feeling among people I know that it wasn’t quite ready yet. Since then, Pam and Flor’s baker Helen have tinkered and tinkered with the dough, honing a mixture of heritage flours, prolonging that cook time so the base looks something like the dark side of the moon, with crusts that blur the boundary between ben cotto and burnt. Holding up a slice, I’m reminded of that apocryphal story that the BBFC’s test for determining explicit male nudity was to measure the angle against the Kintyre peninsula ─ the pizzas at ASAP would fail this every time, maintaining a 90 degree stiffness despite the weight of toppings. For those now used to soupy Neapolitan as a neutral style, ASAP almost seems radical.
ASAP’s pizzas are not virtuous, but they are pizzas for people who like to eat their crusts. As Pam says, in today’s interview, making pizza is both baking and cooking. The pizzas are now at a point where they’re immediately identifiable even without toppings - that bronzed tubular crust, slightly blistered and shiny, as if it’s been rubbed with baby oil. The cooking part, the toppings, vary between higher end takes on low pizzas (“Natoora trash”) and pizzas which are not city pizzas but rather country ones, made with produce from named dairy or vegetable farmers. Some pizzas have been neither red nor white, but positively green.
ASAP closes next week as Flor prepares for reopening, and the future of ASAP is yet to be decided. But for a few months, London had great pizza. Time will tell if what Pam has done is replicable, either by her in a new space, or by other chefs across the city. I like the idea of a new London pizza style, but it will only be formed if chefs really get behind the idea as something to pursue creatively ─ otherwise it will only be seen as something many people saw ASAP as, just a pivot.
Still, when Vaughn is right he’s right, even if I would add this amendment. Good pizzas are the product of cities, great pizzas are the product of a person. It doesn’t matter if ASAP pizza is a London pizza or not ─ leave that to Pizza2Go or Oregano ─ for the time being, it’s Pam’s pizza.
When James (Lowe) brought you over did you have any indication that you would end up making pizzas?
I mean, no, not really. My background is in bread and pastry, but I wanted to break out from being a pastry chef and I was thinking ‘well why do I have to be one thing?’. And pizza for me is a bit of both, it is both baking and cooking to some extent. And while me and James were talking, pizza came up and he said “oh maybe you can do pizza”, but at that point we didn’t know what it was going to be yet. So there was this initial planting of a seed but when I saw the space I was like, “oh yeah, this is too small for pizza”.
But as soon as I saw what was happening with Covid I thought we really needed to pivot to doing something with less staff, because people were bound to get sick and we needed to minimise the number of people in the restaurant. So James said “ok, come up with a menu” and I proposed pizza to go. Funnily enough, the first week of March I went to Sicily for a weekend and when I got back I had to quarantine, so I was in quarantine getting really scared and sitting at home, so I put together a rough menu and literally three or four days later we closed. And then nothing happened for months, and then one day he called me and said he was thinking of revisiting the idea, and that’s how it all happened.
How different is it writing a menu for pizzas in New York compared to writing a pizza menu with London as the context? What new things did you have to bear in mind?
I haven’t visited many London pizzerias so I was quite nervous, because I wasn’t sure what the palate was like for pizzas. It seemed to me people didn’t really go out for pizza in the same way they do in New York. Like everyone goes out for pizza in New York. Whether it’s a restaurant or a slice, it can be multiple times a week. The few that I knew here were Neapolitan style places, which we are not set up for, certainly not in terms of the oven we have. And while I like Neapolitan pizzas, I also like crisp bases and a good colour. And some Neapolitans are just too doughy for me. At first it seemed like we were going to do something more Italian, but I thought even though I love Italy I’m just too American! I just like to put lots of shit on a pizza. I thought, well there’s not a lot of New York style pizza here - although I’m not sure if what we do is even a New York pizza, or even a California style pizza.
Could you define New York style?
I think it’s the type of cheese and maybe even the texture of the dough. Your typical slice joint in New York will cook the whole pie, slice it up, put it back in the oven to warm it up for you, maybe put on some toppings, but it means when it comes out the bottom is warm and crispy. And a lot of American style pizzas have dry mozzarella - they call it low-moisture mozz - every pizza person I know in the States uses it. It’s kind of akin to the supermarket mozzarella you get here but it stretches in a certain way and those New York style pies get light caramelisation on the mozz with longer bake times and lower temperatures. Everyone who wants to do Italian style pizzas use these wet mozzarellas, which is great when warm but once it isn’t it can be a rubbery blob. And I just do not like that. But I do think that’s the signature thing - that dry shredded mozz on top of a pie.
But when you say you were thinking about bringing New York style pizza here, are you referring more to the new-wave pizzerias in New York rather than the traditional New York pizzas?
Yeah, definitely places like Ops, Robertas, Razza, Leo. They have more creative toppings alongside traditional ones, a slightly higher price point. And they’re more restaurants than take out. And that was a struggle because we were thinking if we are going to be a take out/delivery joint then can we put the really good stuff on a pizza? How is it going to travel? Will people pay more? That was something we were really concerned about - we needed to reach as many people as possible, on a platform that a typical ‘foodie’ might not use, so we had to have mass appeal. At the same time I didn’t just want to do margheritas or ‘sausage pizza’. So I played it a bit safe in the beginning: we had a vegan option, a vegetarian option, a margherita, I love potato pizza so I had to put on a potato pizza. And I put on a Hawaiian because that’s a very American thing, even though it was invented in Canada. I wasn’t sure if people here were familiar with it.
*meanwhile a pizza box appears*
We are very familiar with it. Possibly too familiar. OK, so I wanted to show you something which for me, is a typical ‘London’ pizza, which isn’t Neapolitan style but something you can just get on any high street. I’m very proud to say no-one Italian has been near the making of this pizza.
Has this got french fries on it? Or do those just look like french fries?
No, those are strips of tandoori chicken.
This is a proper London pizza base. Just look at the underside.
Ahh not that dark? Kinda doughy.
Very weird. But I did eat a lot of American pizzas growing up and it’s not that different. Although it is quite...hot for the English palate.
They mean it when they put those chilli signs next to the description. So yeah, the deep pan here is always very soft, the rim tastes slightly of oil, and often the cheese is melted over the toppings.
I feel English people love a lot of cheese.
I guess that’s maybe a big difference between London and New York pizzas in that people feel short changed if there’s not enough cheese on their pizza over here.
I mean the weather lends itself to stuffing yourself with cheese in the winter, that kind of comfort food. You know, this isn’t as bad as I thought I would be.
*looks at pizza menu* Is it always this fusion of Indian, Chinese, Mexican.
Yeah those are three big influences in that they are recognisable cuisines to an average British person, but most of the time these shops are run by recent immigrants - maybe Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Turkish - and it’s a purely functional thing. They have a deep-pan pizza conveyor belt, you just set it up and pump them out fairly easily.
I grew up on Dominos, Papa Johns, Pizza Hut in suburban Ohio, but it’s been a long time since I’ve had them so I can’t quite remember what they’re like. I do remember Pizza Hut because they had a really crispy bottom and a deep pan, and I really loved the crust as a kid. You know there’s butter in it? That’s what I’ve heard - one of my friends is a pizza consultant and he tries to recreate the butter crust because it’s something that’s really comforting to a lot of Americans.
It’s the same with the British but Pizza Hut has gone completely out of fashion, partially because restaurants have closed, partially because they definitely do not taste the same anymore.
Actually I’ve had Papa Johns recently. I remember eating Papa Johns as a child and getting the garlic dip. Right before ASAP, James ordered a couple of pizzas off Deliveroo to see what the local offering was like, and one of them was Papa Johns so I said ‘hey get the garlic dip’ and it was gross.
So was going to New York the first time you tasted a pizza that was completely different to these mass-market, chain pizzas?
To be completely honest, I wasn’t that into pizza growing up. My parents both worked, and we had piano lessons, ballet lessons, violin lessons, so they grabbed fast food. McDonalds, Pizza Hut or one of these other pizza places I mentioned. And I really resented it. I was pretty picky as a kid and I didn’t like it. Growing up, whenever they said ‘we’re going to have pizza for dinner’ I did not think it was a legitimate thing to have for dinner. I would always complain. So ironically I really did not like pizza as a child. Then at school we had that kind of French-bread style pizza, and it wasn’t great, so I didn’t have a good impression of it in general. When I went to college in Ann Arbor in Michigan, I was eating at a couple of different pizzas places I thought were good. One of them was underneath my apartment, it was called ‘I Love New York Pizza’ - it was New York style in that they sold by the slice. They would put chicken parmigiana on the pizza, or baked ziti, all those Italian-American classics. And we would always get pizza from there. I guess in my memory that is the first type of pizza that I liked.
I moved to New York in 2006 and I didn’t really eat pizza to be honest unless I was going out to a restaurant with friends, but it wasn’t a fanatical thing for me. I actually worked in Roberta’s in 2010 and it was one of my favourites; it was definitely something different, they had nice toppings, but I wasn’t working on the pizza. I was the pastry chef so I wasn’t really thinking about pizza, but I did enjoy eating it. It wasn’t sourdough or anything, back then it was standard, yeasted, Caputo white flour. I think my real pizza revelation, again somewhat ironically, actually came from Italy. Before we opened Semilla I decided to stay in Italy a bit longer because we were waiting for the restaurant to be fitted out, and I was looking for a bakery to stage in. Panificio Bonci happened to be doing the same event, so I asked them if I could stage with them and the pastry chef was a bitch to me! She wouldn’t let me touch or do anything. So I was there for about a week, and then the guy who was in charge of making the Roman style pizzas told me ‘hey, come over here’ and I started to help him make the pizzas, and they were so good. And then I moved over to Pizzarium and that blew my mind. That was the first thing that got me addicted to pizza.
What is it about Bonci’s pizzas that were so striking?
The ingredients first of all were really high quality. He was a chef before being a pizzaiolo and a baker so he definitely had a cheffy take on the toppings. But it was the dough. It was so light and crisp and the texture was amazing. I hadn’t eaten a lot of pizza around Rome at that time, I’d just been to some al taglio spots, but I was just blown away. Even the Rosso which was just red sauce and wild oregano was amazing. I was just like ‘whoa’ - pizza can be this other thing.
So at Semilla, every Saturday for the staff meal I would make pizzas while I was doing the sourdough. Bonci would do the pizza dough with three day fermentation, in the fridge with a little bit of yeast, so cold fermentation, and I wanted to challenge myself to do it with sourdough. So I just fiddled around a lot. Sometimes we would put up pictures of the staff meal on Instagram and it became a thing with people in the industry saying ‘hey when are you going to make us pizza’. So one day we decided to have a pizza party and it ended up being an insane turn out, it was our biggest revenue night. At that point we considered looking for another spot and doing a pizza place as well, but it never took off. I never considered making pizza as a job, it was just something I did for fun, but I suddenly thought this could actually be a thing, and a contrast to the other thing we had which was much more fine dining. Then when I left the restaurant I went travelling and just did lots of different things - I worked at a bakery in Peru and made wood-fired pizzas there, I staged at a couple of places that specifically made pizza just to figure out different styles, and then I staged with a woman called Sarah Minnick in Portland at Lovely’s Fifty Fifty. It was really product driven pizza, sourdough, wood-fired, all those things ─ she was a huge inspiration. And then I became friends with Massimo at L’Industrie Pizzeria and worked for him for a bit. He’s self taught, he didn’t use sourdough then and does now, but he makes one of the best slices in New York. And then this all kinda led to this.
I think at the start at least, even with me, people weren’t quite sure how to react to your pizzas because they were so different. Almost like Anna (Higham)’s pastries. I think, for instance, some people would struggle with there not being that much cheese on your pizzas, or how different the base is.
Well it’s there, it’s just hidden. It’s that dry mozz. You can’t see it in the same way in the same way you do with fresh mozz with those big white blobs. Some people say ‘oh you didn’t put the cheese on the pizza’ but we did! It’s on there! But I feel that if the base isn’t good it won’t be a good pizza. I think the base is equally important - as someone who cares about grain and bread and fermentation, it had to be really good. But of course, most people think if it has cheese on then they’ll like it. I guess most people feel if you put nice things on it then they’ll like it regardless. But I wanted to make sure we put as much focus on the dough because that will make us different from other people.
I’m fascinated by the constant tinkering you’re doing with the dough; as a customer I can see there’s been an attritional evolution, day by day, week by week, to the point it’s at now. How has it changed from your point of view?
Well the dough is made by Helen (Evans), our baker, she comes in and makes it early in the morning. We work with a lot of small farmers who maybe only have this much of this grain, so we run through a bunch of different grains and keep having to change the mix. But they all perform a bit differently. In the beginning we had to tinker around with the fermentation, plus training people to learn when the dough is at the right point is hard. It’s definitely going to continue to change because we’re not going to use the same stuff. The recipe, the levain and everything, is the same, but the types of flours are constantly changing. At the moment we’re using Cann Mills Stoates - that’s the base as you need something quite strong in it, but the other flour is a mixture of smaller batch, heritage stuff. So the current one now is Miller’s Choice, a population of heritage wheat which was put together by this guy called Andy Forbes and was grown by a few farmers across the UK. We have some spelt from Hodmedods but they contract different farmers to grow it, and there’s April bearded, which is from Gothelney grown by Fred Price. But remember these are such small batches - it’s always changing.
Is that lack of consistency, or at least having to find consistency through constantly changing and blending, a source of irritation for you? Or do you enjoy the challenge of it?
No, if you’re an observant and sensitive baker you adapt and read the flour, just like you would if you’re a good cook. And so many people are used to using dead flour that always behaves the same, even if it’s more consistent for me it doesn’t have any character. I know the people who grow most of our grain now, and for me that’s really important. I’d rather have less consistency and support the agricultural systems I believe in, and have transparency over where stuff is coming from. I see people say they’re using all UK grain, but if they’re using one of the five companies that everyone uses then I can tell you that they are all blending their flour. And I think we can get to the point where we can say that, but it will take a bit more work.
How much of your toppings are determined by the producers you’re working with?
Pretty much all of it. Obviously there’s the margherita and some non-seasonal basics which we have to have and can’t leave the menu. But I really wanted to support the producers, especially now when they had less people buying, I would literally make pizzas based on what they needed to move. Like Neal’s Yard would tell me ‘we have a lot of this and need to sell it’ so that’s when the St Jude pizza came on. Keats had all the swiss chard and kale, so thats where the greens pizza came from. I came from working on Oli’s farm (Mora Farm) and he had all this spring onion and green garlic, so that’s where the onion pizza came from. So a lot of it was trying to support and highlight producers who I really liked. I also think British cheeses are quite interesting, and I thought it would be fun to match the Italian cheeses with their British counterpart. Usually I’d finish a pizza with some Pecorino Romano, or Parmesan, but we chose Spenwood instead because it has a similar profile. So that’s been fun - I get to learn about cheeses and play with things, and I don’t need to buy everything through an Italian importer!
(Palourde clam pizza special at Flor last Saturday)
Recently you put on a mortadella and pesto pizza, and this was about a week after we went on an ill-fated pizza crawl of south London. But we had that mortadella and pesto pizza at Bravi Ragazzi, and I was wondering how you developed the riff on that so quickly?
I had wanted to do a mortadella pizza since we opened, but it never happened But after we had all those pizzas together I thought ‘I wanna put it on’. I had a look at how people were doing it and everyone puts the same stuff on it: pistachios, green pesto. But I don’t want to do the same thing, so I was doing a bit of research and talking to my Italian supplier, Alfonso (La Sovrana) asking if he has stracciatella and somehow we got talking about pesto. And I’ve been to Sicily a lot and of course there’s pesto trapanese and he mentioned ‘yeah my mum makes this pesto with sun dried tomatoes’ and I said ‘really, that’s cool. Send me your mum’s recipe’. So I adapted his mum’s recipe. I do really like the way the green looks with the mortadella and I thought ‘this won't look as cool’ but I tried it and it was great.
ASAP’s coming into its last week, and I tentatively feel it could be the start of a genuine London pizza style if chefs see what you’re doing and think it’s worth replicating and putting their skills into making something that they can be proud of. Have you noticed any influence you’re having?
It’s hard to say! I hope it gets chefs out of that attitude which says ‘I’m too good to make pizza’ - that pisses me off. Chefs had a lot of time at home, they were making pizzas in their back yard. Some of the best chefs in New York are pizza fanatics - like Sean Grey at Momofuku Ko, who has put on a $28 pizza on their Ko to Go menu. He’s a pizza fanatic like I am. I think there’s enough respect among chefs in New York that pizza is a legitimate thing, and it would be nice to see that here. Hopefully it will spark something, although I don’t know if it has.
I guess the romantic notion of pizza is that it is this blank canvas to communicate things easily, whether it’s culture, or a specific mixture of immigration patterns. Do you feel there’s something you want to communicate with your pizzas?
From what I gather, pizza is still viewed as cheap here and shouldn’t be above a certain price point. And I think that’s a shame because it could be more. I’m not saying cheap pizza isn’t good - in New York where you can have a nice pizza or a “shitty” pizza and still enjoy it - but I think there’s an opportunity to show people that it can be more. There’s sometimes even an assumption that we’re doing this to make loads of money - that’s absolutely not true. My motivation in pursuing doing a pizza place is I’ve worked in a lot of places which are expensive, as any young cook does, and pizza seems in many ways to be more democratic. I’d prefer to serve my friends, my family, my parents on a regular basis with something of high quality, but not necessarily pricey. My parents love pizza and they came to my pizza pop ups, but they only came to my restaurant once. I don’t have an ego about fine dining, I can take the same level of expertise, of attention to detail, respect for ingredients, to a food which has universal appeal. I don’t want people to say ‘oh you’re making really posh pizzas’. I want them at their heart to be appealing to as many types of people as possible. Of course there are those who won’t like it, and I have cheffy tendencies in terms of choosing flavour profiles, but pizza is an equaliser. And that might be what we need right now. A lot of the clientele in Borough Market were tourists but what about serving the local community? I think it’s really important.
The way I view paying £16 for a pizza, which isn’t really that much more than all those mediocre Neapolitan pizzas we had, is that this is £16 for maybe the best expression of a genre or style of food you can get in this city. And it doesn’t have to be pizza, it could be pastry or a sandwich or whatever. To get the analogue of that in a dinner and I would be paying 10 times the price, for something as filling. So for me, it feels like something which is great value.
That’s the way I see it too. In the States I’d pay $27 for a pizza no problem. It’s an affordable luxury. If people are making less money it’s still something nice they can treat themselves to. I know they’re planning that ASAP will continue in some way, although that’s still to be determined. But for that moment it was the right chord to strike, and it’s been fun to see people react to it.