Pasquale Chionchio and Angelo Ambrosio have done a lot for London pizza. Not least their restaurant, Santa Maria, which opened on an anonymous neighbourhood thoroughfare in Ealing, 2010, and proceeded to redefine (or indeed, just define) what the city’s eaters knew pizza could be. In the intervening years, the Neapolitan duo have opened two further restaurants and put rockets up the chairs of critics and “critics” alike; their ferocious devotion to the traditions of Neapolitan pizza and the inflation of their own reputation has ruffled more than a few bags of Tipo 00 flour. Not least their main ideological competitors, Franco Manca, whose “sourdough” bases came in for serious shade.
The best (?) pizza in London needs pizzaioli, or pizza masters, and Santa Maria is no exception. One of its former charges, Emanuele Tagliarina, is now attached to Farina Pizzeria in Notting Hill — not exactly far from Santa Maria — with the restaurant proclaiming itself “the hottest destination for traditional Neapolitan pizza”, “bringing the best Neapolitan style pizza to West London.” Chionchio and Ambrosio (and many London disciples) would argue that theirs was already fulfilling both roles. Farina even goes as far as to bill its offering as created by an “ex-Santa Maria” pizzaiolo, a reflection of the respect and reverence for the duo’s restaurant.
There’s rarely room for complaint about a surfeit of high-quality pizza — unless it’s bookended by grievously unedited bro-introspection — but close comparison of the menus and methodologies at Farina and Santa Maria reveals some rather telling similarities. The dough — and reasoning behind it — is essentially identical. This is hardly an indictment: Chionchio and Ambrosio have themselves said in the past that Neapolitan and sourdough are the only two viable directions for a pizza base. More interesting is the range of toppings at Farina, that can only be described as indebted to those served at Santa Maria, albeit under different names: Calzone San Salvatore at the latter and Ripieno at the former have literally identical ingredients, while Farina’s interpretation of the sausage and friarielli (wild broccoli) offering at Santa Maria bears more than a passing resemblance.
It’s true that high-quality pizza is a tough field to differentiate in, necessarily in thrall to certain traditions, perhaps paralysed by authenticity: Chionchio admits that “You need guts to create another pizza concept like, I would say, Homeslice or Radio Alice for example, it’s easier to follow an established and successful concept instead.” There’s also an argument for not changing a winning formula — even if it is so clearly somebody else’s; even if that somebody else’s version was necessarily influenced by someone and/or somewhere else.
That is to say that any one restaurant “owning” Neapolitan pizza — itself a product subject to regulation as stringent as any DOC product — in London is nonsense. That said, for all of Santa Maria’s influence on London pizza, there are few restaurants in its ballpark for quality, and so Farina’s following in its footsteps in such close geographical proximity is perhaps more brazen than it might first appear.
As might be expected from the outspoken Chionchio, Santa Maria sees it one way. When contacted by Eater London for comment, his first response was, “what do they say about the copying/flattery thing?” He goes on...
When in 2010 we put everything on the table, to follow our dream, we gambled, we had a vision, and as today is still something that have been our main focus. And we have always believed in what we were doing, since day one, we pioneered the concept of the neapolitan pizza, getting inspiration from a place like Donna Margherita in Clapham, but we just wanted to focus on the pizza. It was a gamble, back then, and the fact that today you could count about 50 “traditional neapolitan pizzeria” in London is something that make us proud. On the other hand it’s a bit sad that there are people that copy other established concepts, showing lack of personality, creativity and ideas.
We just want to clarify that our concept was born with Angelo and I, in the February of 2010, and since then we have pursued it. Whoever worked with us had been following our ideas, our recipes, our style and never took part to the creation of any bit of it, it’s just flour from our sack.
There are some telling points here: acknowledgment of inspiration and influence from elsewhere; an awareness that what was once pioneering is now commonplace; an idiom that will surely enter into popular culture at once. The latter is specific to Chionchio: the two former points show a self-awareness that Farina appears to lack, and perhaps this is the point: at such a revered site of culinary tradition, it always helps to recognise where a restaurant stands. It’s important too, though, to recognise that Neapolitan pizza’s restrictions — the restrictions that make it what it is — lead to a limited capacity for creativity within the framework.
Eater London has contacted Farina Pizzeria for comment.