In the eight years since Gung Ho! Pizza first burst onto Beijing's dining scene, it's steadily carved out a rep for its wholesome, and fittingly, gung-ho, take on pizzas. The brainchild of Kiwi natives Jade Gray and John O'Loghlen, the Sanlitun pizzeria offers up signature pizza doughs (whole wheat, gluten-free and low-carb paleo), as well as an array of punchy toppings. Craving souvlaki? Try their Lord of the Lambs pizza (109RMB) topped with New Zealand lamb and tzatziki sauce. Want a bit of everything? Opt instead for the Beloved Supreme (109RMB), crowned with Black Forest ham, Italian sausage, asparagus, mushrooms and more.
Gung Ho's also one of the few, if only, pizza joints offering the option of house-made vegan cheese, meaning that anyone can grab a slice of the action – including Beijing's much-neglected vegan subset. Vegan
options (all coming in at 86RMB) include the Robert Plant, a vegetable-loaded
pizza including roasted okra, asparagus and bell peppers, the Peking Popeye, featuring
smoked tofu and spinach, and the Mushroom, loaded with three different kinds of
mushroom, cherry tomatoes, microgreens and a trickle of truffle oil.
Over the past four years, Gung Ho!’s delivery men dashing about the city have become a familiar sight. At traffic lights you can often see one whizzing by, clad in brash hot pink, with ‘Go go go!’ emblazoned on his bike. Late on a rainy Saturday afternoon another’s at your door, pizza box in hand, to witness your deplorable hangover.
With such a successful delivery service it seemed that not much attention was paid to its bricks-and-mortar restaurant: the dimly lit venue felt like an abandoned cargo ship container. Who wants to eat a slice of pizza under an industrial heating duct when you can get the same thing delivered to your bed? Especially when there’s a new season of Game of Thrones on.
Enter Gung Ho! 2.0. The aesthetic has shifted from unintentional industrial to calculated contemporary. Pastel coloured slatted wood and lightly distressed concrete walls dominate, while filament light bulbs – obligatory at all the city’s new openings – hang from the ceiling. Another mandatory décor detail has also been applied: glance up to see a black and white motivational message urging you to ‘dare to be different’.
The irony of such an obvious homage to Moka Bro’s encouraging its customers to be original seems to have been lost. The similar feel is no doubt due to the fact that Gung Ho! has used the same designer that was behind the Moka Bro’s interior.
The new menu traverses old territory but also expands outwards, with a sharper focus on large, shareable plates. There’s a Chinese-inspired, Italian-tweaked balsamic pork belly (65RMB) and a beer-battered fish (65RMB) which fits more squarely in the Western tradition. Baked stuffed mushrooms (40RMB) are ten to an order – six crimini and four shitake – and come jammed with a subtle spinach pesto and a heavy topping of Parmesan that gives a sharper bite.
Be sure to snap up the lemony fried calamari (55RMB), which is dipped in a spice-laced batter and served with a tangy tartar. The dish evokes idyllic seashore holidays, which is mighty impressive in a landlocked city of over 20 million. A beer mojito (75RMB), made with Koenig Ludwig Weiss and white rum, and a superlative mango mai tai, made with juice from local company iF Juice (75RMB), both have a potency worth their price.
Choose between thin or thick crust pizza and watch as your chili prawn pizza (medium 99RMB; large 143RMB) is flamed tableside, charring long cross-sections of aubergine and crisping the julienned red chilli peppers. Theatrics included, it’s a fiery new flavour of pizza not for the faint of heart.
The salads are leafy affairs that manage to walk a thin line: they are at once both filling and light. Interim floor manager Fabio Toniolo brings an Italian influence in the form of an exquisite cold orzo salad (medium 46RMB; large 77RMB). A tangle of greens and herbs is showered with tiny bullets of pasta, each bite finishing with deep, nutty undertones from the toasted sunflower seeds.
Toniolo’s touches make a world of difference. Everyone exudes a friendly, infectious energy that feels authentic and unscripted. In a city where service rarely comes with a smile, it’s this selling point that puts Gung Ho! in a class of its own.
By Cat Nelson