One of London’s best pizzerias will move its flagship restaurant away from the tiny location that made its name. Santa Maria, which opened on Saint Mary’s Road in Ealing in 2010 and presaged Neapolitan pizza’s irresistible rise in the city, will now operate out of 11 Bond Street, also in W5. The original location will become Vergine Maria, which looks like the first of a series of vegan (pizza) restaurants from founders Pasquale Chionchio and Angelo Ambrosio. It’s far from a full arriverderci, but it’s still something of a goodbye.
The duo announced the new restaurant in November, but it originally appeared to be a more spacious complementary to the Saint Mary’s Road restaurant, which is dominated by its wood-fired oven and — under non-pandemic circumstances — queues out the door and takeaway boxes piled high. Its effective replacement of the original is a more significant move for a restaurant which, despite its citywide reputation and sites in Fulham and Fitzrovia, remains an Ealing standard bearer first and foremost, especially with the restaurant having stopped serving its pizza at the Red Lion Pub next door on Saint Mary’s Road. Chionchio describes the new restaurant as much bigger, and notes that it’s between a Pizza Express and Nando’s. He also noted that the benefits of a small, intimate site sometimes became “uncomfortable” for customers when social distancing was in place, unsure of whether it could really work, and that having a bigger site will alleviate some of those concerns.
“Vegan pizza,” is not new to the restaurant, with it taking up its own menu section at each of their restaurants, offering bases topped with walnut cream, rocket, tomato, and aubergine; or pumpkin cream topped with grilled courgettes. The simplest pizza of them all, the marinara — or here, the Santa Maria — is incidentally vegan. But opening a restaurant dedicated to it has been in mind for a while — Ambrosio is vegetarian while Chionchio is vegan. Chionchio also describes it as “challenging — a new menu, and it won’t be just pizza. The focus on Vergine Maria is vegan (pizza),” rather than the devotion to the specialism of Neapolitan pizza that the restaurant built its reputation on.
It’s an interesting turn for Chionchio and Ambrosio nearly eleven years since opening. They have long credited Donna Margherita, a Clapham Italian restaurant that serves pizza as part of its menu that opened in 2003, as a source of inspiration, from which they chose to deviate by doing pizza only. Here, macaroni and cheese, meatballs, milkshakes and a “more international” outlook are already slated for the menu. “If you want to go out and have dinner — one day! — there’s more of an option than pizza for people who come to our restaurant.”
Chionchio says that this also lets them preserve the original site with minimum of fuss. “We are attached to that place, Ealing is our area, our home, and where we all started — we want to concentrate on this one and there are too many things about the original restaurant that led us to this new venture.” The duo’s prior ambitions for its reinvention — for perhaps a bakery, or grocery, would have “required a big investment. This new idea takes less money, and if it’s not successful, we can change it a second time, test it, do something new if we need to.” Chionchio also described Fitzrovia as a current “disaster,” and sees this Vergine Maria project, if successful, as an opportunity for that site in the future. “We really believe in this, and always waited for the right moment, the right time. I think that the right time is now.”
The pandemic has affected both restaurants beyond not allowing them to open. Installing the oven at the Bond Street site, the owners remarked that it would normally be built in situ, instead being shipped across from Italy; both opening dates will now be pushed back. But with Santa Maria remaining a delivery and takeaway standby for many locals since the first lockdown in March, Chionchio and Ambrosio will want to get both Bond Street and the new original running as soon as possible, targeting early February for deliveries from the new site and mid-March for the Vergine Maria project.