The news that Pizza Express is launching gluten-free menu items from April 30th will be music to many coeliacs’ ears. Last night I attended a bloggers’ event where they showcased their new menu. With rumours of cross-contamination issues floating around the blogosphere I was sceptical, but what I found out surprised and thrilled me…
Pizza Express is somewhat of a nostalgic place for me, harking back to 14th birthday parties with me smiling delightedly in front of an American pizza (because why would you want anything other than pepperoni on a pizza? ;)). Even though it might not make much sense, there was always something a little special about it, I think partly because it gave the illusion of fine dining to a teenager with a very unsophisticated palate. Plus, the pizzas were pretty good, although none of the desserts compared to Ask’s honeycomb cheesecake.
Since going gluten-free I haven’t set foot in a Pizza Express, as I’ve heard many reports of people getting ill from cross contamination due to flour in the air. People used to tell me “Did you know you can bring in your own base and they’ll make you a gluten-free pizza?” to which I usually scoffed, “Yes, but you pay full price for providing half the ingredients!”. I never did try that, simply because there are other gluten-free pizzas out there which are much better than toppings on a bit of cardboard.
So when I received an invitation to this event, I wasn’t quite sure what to think. I expected a “sample” tasting and maybe a drink. But despite us being but lowly bloggers, they had gone all out and provided us with a fully gluten-free Pizza Express experience. Hats off to them for being such excellent hosts.
Now onto the nitty gritty. Rolling out such huge changes across all stores is by no means a small task, and gluten-free offerings at Pizza Express have been in the works for around three years. They say this has been due to huge demand but also that it was “the responsible thing to do”. This is why they are reaching out to coeliac and gluten-free bloggers, because they want to be respectful to us coeliacs, not pander to the Gwyneth Paltrows of this world with a brash advertising campaign.
Not to mention it’s cheaper 😛
But I really admire the dedication which has gone into this project in order to make everything totally safe for coeliacs. That has been their primary concern. To make a change this big they have had to consider:
- The food itself
- The menu (i.e. messaging)
- Kitchen processes and training
I won’t lie, there currently isn’t a massive selection in the range, but what there is is as follows:
Starter: “Risotto d’oro” (Butternut squash risotto with parmesan)
Main: Any pizza toppings* on a gluten-free classic base
* With the exception of the meatballs, Sloppy Giueseppe and the gruyere & parmesan sauce.
Main: Superfood salad
Dessert: Gluten-free brownie with coffee/tea
So you can see that’s not a bad selection to start with! As far as taste goes, I have no complaints whatsoever! The pizza base was thin enough to be thin crust, but had a slight chewiness to it which really made it very good. It was also THE SAME SIZE (11 inches) as their regular pizzas. And the same price! Hurrah! The bases themselves are made by Molias, the second largest gluten-free bakery in Europe, and are custom made for Pizza Express. They also come in a smaller 7 inch child’s size.
The risotto was great, especially if you like sharper cheeses. The Pizza Express team had spent all evening raving about the brownie, and it lived up to expectations – it had a slight crust on top and was exceedingly fudgy.
Oh! And the beer! They had found a gluten-free Pilsner which was very drinkable indeed, and that coming from someone who isn’t much of a beer drinker. But it was great!
Pizza Express has been working closely with Coeliac UK to ensure that their food will be safe for coeliacs and that their menu is correctly worded. The menu that we were shown bore the label “NGCI” (no gluten containing ingredients), but the main reason for this rather than the simpler “Gluten-free” is that they have made a very drastic change since the menus were printed.
From April 30th, ALL flour used in the restaurant will be gluten-free. That is, when they knead the regular dough, they will knead it in gluten-free flour. This quite simple switch means that we will no longer have to worry about flour dust, and is quite the change for a big chain (although it should be noted that Domino’s UK do the same).
So actually, by the time you get to eat at Pizza Express, the NGCI symbol can be read as effectively GF. They may even have reprinted the menu by then.
Kitchen processes and staff training
If you were still in any doubt about the safety of eating at Pizza Express, let me tell you about their many, many processes. There are separate, black-handled utensils, ladles and pans for gluten-free use. Any gluten-free order gets flagged at the till. Work surfaces are thoroughly cleaned and hands washed before they start. Gluten-free pizzas come served on a black board (see picture above) so no confusion can occur between kitchen and table. For the first gluten-free order of each day, a separate mozzarella and sauce packet is opened. I could go on, but having never worked in a kitchen before I was a little overwhelmed at just how much they had thought of. Let me assure you though, they have really thought this one through.
I was pleased to learn that waiting staff will be trained at the same time as the chefs, so they don’t get a “watered down” version of the training. The team at Pizza Express actually told us how excited their employees had been about the changes, because so many of them knew someone who was affected either by coeliac disease or gluten intolerance. The chefs also responded positively to the changes, because they could see the reasons behind the changes, such as using gluten-free flour to knead, were not an arbitrary change but a chance to get many, many more customers.
Adding a few gluten-free items to a menu may not seem like much. But these are positive changes which will mean the world to coeliac children who can now go to their friends’ birthday parties. And for nostalgic adults to get their American Hot fix ;). It is great to know that one of the UK’s most prolific pizza chains is now welcoming us with such open arms and open ears.
So from April 30th, go try out their new pizzas. And let them know what you think – they are very keen on hearing any feedback you have.
You can tweet to Paul who runs the Twitter account on: @PizzaExpress or visit their Facebook page if you have any further queries or comments!