Pizza Express is the sort of smart-casual pizzeria that’s a nice treat without breaking the bank. If you’re British, this place hardly needs an introduction. Building on the success of the branches in Shanghai and Hong Kong, the UK high street mainstay’s latest opening hasn’t altered its tried-and-tested formula: it’s contemporary, comfortable, and very, very busy. The pizzeria’s dinerstyle booths are constantly heaving under the restaurant’s high ceilings – all set smack dab in Sanlitun.
The franchise’s 500th branch has a lot in common with its chainstore sisters around the world – they do Italian inspired comfort food respectably well. Switch out London’s Shaftesbury Avenue for Sanlitun, and it’s essentially the same experience. For a chain restaurant, though, the standard is impressively high.
Most dishes are big enough to share; you’d need a huge appetite to get all that food down solo. Salads, for instance, come loosely tossed on a platter the size of a hubcap – though the overly brined, unappealing white meat in our chicken salad (94RMB) took the edge off.
The remainder of the appetisers come with various degrees of Italianness, but the real selling point is in the fluffy dough. Real breadheads will order the chewy dough balls (36RMB) straight up, served with garlic and pesto dips. When bruschetta is done ‘Pizza Express style’ (49RMB), it’s a baked bun crowned with juicy tomato, basil and pesto. It’s not authentic, but it hits the spot.
The restaurant’s pride is its pizzas, each prepared by pizzaolos, the striped-shirted chefs in the back who spin the dough around until the crusts are thin and crispy. Pizzas available range from standard toppings – such as margarita (80RMB) and pepperoni (96RMB) – to more experimental styles. Consider a Peking duck and hoisin (118RMB), or smoked salmon and dill (102RMB), if you want to mix it up.
Unfortunately, the consistency of the crusts is unpredictable. There are two types of pizza: skinny-crust ‘Rome-style’, and the slightly thicker, smaller ‘classic’. We ordered two Rome-style pizzas on our visit, starting with a perfectly crispy Padana (94RMB), an explosion of creamy goats’ cheese tempered with sweet caramelised onions and sautéed spinach. Order this pizza. It couldn’t be more different from our Amatriciana (96RMB), which came out floppy and sparsely populated with Parma ham and chilli. Our classic-type Trifolata (98RMB), freckled with mushrooms and drizzled with fragrant truffle oil, had the same issues.
To finish, spurn a single dessert and splurge for the platter (68RMB), a sample of three half-portions of the chain’s greatest sweet-tooth hits. The banoffee pie was our hands-down favourite – layers of delectable banana and toffee under whipped cream.With its thin crusts and Sanlitun setting, Pizza Express is in direct competition with La Pizza. What sets it miles ahead, though, is the hip setting and better-quality food. It’s these strengths that are drawing in the crowds for a slice of the UK.