A pint and a pizza: the real Italian job
Added: Monday, October 2nd 2017
A pint and a pizza is a popular combo in Britain but you will need to redefine you attitude to the Italian dish if you eat at the Red Lion in Ealing, West London. It’s a Fuller’s pub but the tenants are two Italians from Naples who offer something unique: real ale and real pizza.
Angelo Ambrosio and Pasquale Chionchio are dedicated to pizza as it’s made in the Naples region. They care passionately about all aspects of making pizza and import the basic ingredients – from wheat to tomatoes -- from Italy.
They opened a pizzeria in St Mary’s Road, Ealing, and called it Santa Maria in homage to the road. It stands next door to the Red Lion and, as the restaurant is so small, Angelo and Pasquale would advise waiting customers to go to the pub for an aperitif, with a table number in hand.
In September 2016 the publican at the Red Lion retired and the Italian duo decided it would be logical to stop using the pub as a waiting room and run it to expand their food operation.
“It was a culture shock for the locals,” Pasquale says -- “two Neapolitans running a British institution like the pub.
“But we respect the pub culture and most of the customers are happy. Trade had gone down under the old landlord but we have boosted it again.”
He came to Britain in 2000. “I was chasing a woman – cherchez la femme, as they say in French. We got married and had a son. We’ve since separated but remain on good terms.”
He encouraged Angelo to join him in 2003. They were friends from their teenage years and were keen to open their own restaurant but they started by working in a pizzeria in Knightsbridge.
“It was nothing like real pizza,” Angelo says with a frown. “Authentic pizza is rare in the UK. So we opened Santa Maria in 2010 and make pizzas as close to the ones we know from back home.”
They have been remarkably successful in a short time. They now have a second restaurant in Fulham and are planning a third for Fitzrovia, which will take Neapolitan pizza to one of the poshest parts of London.
The Red Lion is a delightful pub. A small front bar leads to a larger back room with a garden beyond. It has wood panelling, alcoves, settles and polished floors and is decked out with fascinating stills and posters from films made at Ealing Film Studios across the road.
Angelo and Pasquale have a tenancy agreement with Fuller’s and they sell the full range of the Chiswick brewery’s beers. The Italians are refreshingly blunt and says the brewery’s beer prices are “extortionate”, with London Pride retailing at £4 a pint.
“Food gives us better margins,” Angelo says. The pub’s tables carry the menus from Santa Maria and customers can order and eat in the Red Lion.
The one beer you can’t drink in the pub is Santa Maria, a 4 per cent IPA made with the addition of blood orange juice, produced by a small craft brewery, Bianca Road Brew in Peckham. It’s a luscious, tart and refreshing beer, a fine companion for pizza, but it’s only available in the pizzeria as Fuller’s won’t relax the tie in the pub.
The duo wax lyrical about the joys of pizza. “Passion drives you,” Pasquale says. “You can’t use cheap ingredients. We import the flour for the base – it takes between 36 and 48 hours to make the light dough we need before cooking in a special wood-fired oven.” “The edges to our pizzas are perfectly charred,” Angelo adds. “Some customers complain but we tell them we make the dough soft so it folds. In Naples, pizza is street food.”
Herbs, spices, ham, salami, mushrooms, parmesan, mozzarella, aubergines, rocket, olives, artichokes and olive oil are all brought fresh from Italy. Angelo and Pasquale are especially proud of their tomato sauce that’s made only from tomatoes grown in San Marzano near Naples. The variety has a DOP – Denominazione di Origine Protetta – or guarantee of origin, as the tomatoes are considered the best in the world and is the only variety allowed in true Pizza Napoletana. San Marzano stands at the foot of Mount Vesuvius and the volcanic soil gives the tomatoes their special taste and character. The tomatoes are hand-crushed in the pizzeria.
The emphasis on the finest imported ingredients doesn’t mean prices are outlandish. The simplest pizza, Santa Maria, with tomato, sauce, garlic and oregano, costs £5.75 and a classic Margherita comes in at £6.95. Top of the range at £11.95 is a folded pizza, Calzone San Salvatore, made with tomato sauce, mozzarella, ricotta, cotto ham, salame Napoli and parmesan.
There are no fewer than 16 types of pizza to choose from. They include a Naples speciality, San Gennaro, made with tomato sauce, mozzarella, anchovies, black olives, capers and oregano (£8.95).
Before you tackle an open or folded pizza, there’s a tempting list of starters. It’s worth ordering a simple pane & olio, for Angelo and Pasquale make their own bread, baked fresh every day. There’s also bruschetta using the fresh-baked bread, aubergines parmigiana, insalata mista, and caponata, a Sicilian vegetable stew. The house bread also features in Bocconcini alla Pizzaiola – smoked buffalo mozzarella in tomato sauce – and Burrata Pugliese with rocket and roasted cherry tomatoes.
Should you have room, desserts include a wide range of ice creams, home-made tiramisu, lemon sorbet, and Neapolitan ricotta pastry.
If you eat in the pub and can’t sample the special IPA, I found that both Fuller’s Oliver’s Island and the redoubtable ESB were excellent companions for the rich and delectable food. It’s a whole new pub food experience and Angelo and Pasquale believe breweries and pub owners need to give more attention to the food offering in order to attract more custom.
They are keen to see pubs surviving. “They’re part of British culture,” Pasquale says. He recalls telling a British acquaintance one sunny Sunday that he was going to the beach. The Brit replied: “You’re Italian and you go the beach. I’m going to the pub.”
More will follow if they offer food as good as you can get in the Red Lion. Time Out magazine has named Santa Maria the best pizza in London and once you’ve enjoyed it there you may never phone for a takeaway again.
*Red Lion, 13 St Mary’s Road, Ealing, London W5 5RA. 020 8567 2541. Santa Maria at the Red Lion, 15 St Mary’s Road, 020 8579 1462. @SantaMariaPizza. Bianca Road Brewery, Peckham, SE15 6SJ @biancaroad.