Manchester has, until very recently, had a rather innocuous relationship with pizza, where for many years the Italian-American delicacy was only really available in kebab shops, Italian restaurants and of course – Pizza Hut.
The pizzeria concept here in the city is a relatively new idea – seemingly appearing with gusto around the early ‘teens before quickly exploding into the diverse and highly competitive scene that we see before us now.
If you’re looking for pizza here in the city centre today, you’ve got New York, Roma, Detroit, and Chicago, vegan only offerings and the current flavour of the month – the ever-popular Neapolitan.
Back in the 70’s though, Italian food in Britain was considered ‘exotic’ and people’s knowledge on what was on offer was extremely limited.
Before pasta became a favourite tea time staple in houses throughout the country, the British public were SO clueless about Italian food that most were easily fooled by the BBC who, in the 50’s, told them that ‘Spaghetti grows on Trees!’
In Manchester the first Italian restaurants began to appear in the early 70s, with one man being credited as being the person to “bring pizza to Manchester” – Evandro Barbieri.
He arrived in the city from Milan in 1958 and started working at the prestigious Midland Hotel. He eventually opened up Isola Bella on Booth Street in 1970, quickly followed by Bella Napoli in 1973 – conveniently located just around the corner from his other restaurant.
People queued down the street for a table at his restaurants, spurred on to visit by a reputation for genuine Italian cuisine that most people had never seen before – including the pizzas. Many Mancunians had their first ever taste of pizza in one of Evandro’s restaurants – and his impact on the city is unquestionable.
By the mid-eighties his ’empire’ included San Marco on the corner of Blackfriars and Deansgate, which was destroyed by the huge IRA bomb in the city in 1996, and a new Isola Bella which was in Crown Square, which is where Oast House is now.
In 1995 Evandro was honoured back in Italy with the title of ‘Cavaliere Del Lavoro‘ or “The Order of Merit for Labour” which is essentially an Italian knighthood. He retired in 2008 and sadly passed away after a short illness in 2012.
His legacy certainly lives on in the city though, as it was Evandro’s introduction to Italian food that kick-started a food revolution in the city, and lay the foundations for the many pizzerias we see today.
Back in the 80s, as Italian restaurants began to become more popular, Don Giovanni opened up aiming to appeal to the descendants of the thousands of Italian immigrants who came over in the late 1800’s to work in the city’s mills, the majority of whom settled in Ancoats at the time.
Over the years, as Italian cuisine has become ever more popular and part of everyday diets, the city has become awash with a variety of excellent restaurants, from Don Giovanni who are still trading today, to Salvi’s, San Carlo, Cibo, Vero Moderno, Veeno, Rosso and even dedicated pasta venues like Sugo and Pasta Factory.
For years though, these kind of restaurants typically served one type of pizza – the classic Roma style, but it wasn’t until 1989 when Manchester was treated to it’s very own dedicated pizza restaurant – Pizza Express on King Street.
A genuine revelation at the time, Pizza Express was massively popular, and for years was one of the city’s favourite pizza joints, until the year 2000 when a local independent stole it’s crown.
I’m sure most of you remember Croma, and in fact it’s still knocking about in the city centre and suburbs – and when they first opened – it was THE place to be. Never before had the city seen a pizzeria that offered the kind of pizzas that they did – and they did it exceptionally well.
Founded by restaurateurs Andrew Bullock, Kirsty Marshall and Bob Dunn, Croma went on to win many accolades and a place in many a Mancunian’s hearts. Their Hoisin Duck was a winner, as was their always popular Chicken Caesar Salad Pizza. Pairing these beauties with reasonably priced plonk and a bit of a party atmosphere on the weekends and they were onto a hit.
As the years went on, the concept of the pizzeria continued to grow (slowly) through the city. There was Slice in Stevenson Square, serving up proper Roman-style (square) pizzas made fresh daily, and then in 2014, Crazy Pedro’s Part-time Pizza Parlour burst onto the scene – serving up New York style slices and pies, complete with a vast array of mad and crazy toppings.
It’s here in the ‘pizza timeline’ where the focus shifts rests on a tiny restaurant in a rather dodgy part of the city centre, one which seemingly managed to re-vitalise and transform the pizza scene in the city, as well as help launch Ancoats as a must-visit food and drink destination. Rudy’s.
Since Rudy’s opened their doors back in 2015, the popularly of Neapolitan pizza has exploded, and with their combination of fresh ingredients, flawless dough and relatively cheap price – Rudy’s became the name on the lips of many in the pizza world – eventually resulting in them being named the 10th best pizza in the world in 2019.
The success of Rudy’s opened the flood gates for Neapolitan pizzerias in Manchester, with the likes of PLY, Ciaooo, Noi Quattro, Purezza and Franco Manca all banging out truly excellent pies with inventive and interesting toppings.
The Neapolitan pizza itself has seen a major revival in the city, where previous to 2013 you probably wouldn’t have found them anywhere at all, and now – well, they’re everywhere you look.
Originating from Naples, the pizza itself is famed for its simplicity and the use of very few, but very fresh ingredients. Basic dough, raw tomatoes, fresh mozzarella cheese, fresh basil and olive oil – that’s it – and that was the secret to Rudy’s success.
Characterised by more sauce than cheese, being served with a knife and fork and generally being smaller than their New York or Roma cousins, as well as cooking in seconds, the Neapolitan pizza allows venues to bash out hundreds of pizzas a day, while still keeping costs (and prices) low.
From here, other styles have appeared, with one of the most recent additions, Ramona, jumping on the Detroit-style bandwagon set down by Corner Slice in Failsworth, and taking it right up to 11 with the addition of a live music programme, club nights, DJs and some seriously good cocktails.
The city’s pizza revolution doesn’t look like it’s going to disappear anytime soon, with a spate of upcoming new additions to the city being announced on an almost weekly basis, and an insatiable appetite for pizza further afield in the suburbs and Greater Manchester, where people would have traditionally had to travel into the city centre to get the best pizzas.
Rudy’s themselves have expanded into Liverpool and most recently – Sale, and in Stretford you’ll find the excellent Bakehouse32, Double Zero in Chorlton, Proove in Didsbury, Lucky Mama’s in Eccles, I Knead Pizza in Reddish and likely many more that I’ve not had chance to visit yet.
The journey of the humble pizza in Manchester is one that was started by Evandro Barbieri and then re-invigorated by Jim Morgan and Kate Wilson when they opened up Rudy’s in Cutting Room Square in 2015. It seems highly unlikely that this is the end of the story, and it’ll be interesting to see who can carry the pizza-shaped torch for the city in years to come.