If there's one thing that deeply disappoints me, it's restaurants claiming that they do "real Italian pizza" when they don't.
The number of times I have been lured into a place by promises of the Holy Grail, only to be served a rock hard wafer that's topped with an insult to mozzarella and snaps as you eat it, are too many to count.
Pizza should be a rich and indulgent food. Despite its simplicity, it should be one of the greatest pleasures. For me, this means pillowy crusts, oozing toppings and the inevitable trickle of tomato down your wrist as you attempt to manipulate one magnificent slice to your mouth.
By now you may have guessed that when it comes to Roman vs. Neapolitan pizza, I am firmly in the latter camp.
And this is why:
When Pizzastein first opened earlier this year, I took the claims of "real Neapolitan pizza" with a pinch of salt. Then I looked a bit closer and saw that they were advocates of the "Napoli rules", which state (amongst other things) the exact type of ingredients you should use, from the Type 00 flour, to the San Marzano tomatoes.
Intrigued, I visited with some friends and was absolutely overjoyed by what I found. Toppings that oozed and gooed with each bite and a crust so luscious and promiscuous, it would be a crime to leave it on the plate.
I was desperate to go back - my only problem was convincing Michele to go.
At first he was resistant. I guess it would be like him trying to persuade me to try fish and chips in Italy. (Actually, screw that, no persuasion would be needed. That would probably be amazing. But you get my point.) Why eat the food of your country, that you know and love so well, in another place that has most probably missed the point entirely?
But earlier this week, another Italian told us it was the best pizza in Exeter. And so, finally, I got my way...
We visited on a quiet Saturday lunchtime. I say quiet - the restaurant was pretty much empty except for a family sitting at the table outside. There wasn't any music playing either, meaning that we felt like we had to talk in hushed voices so as not to disturb the silence. We enjoyed ourselves anyway but a little bit of music would have really improved the atmosphere.
Our waitress came over to take our drink orders (half pint of Poretti, what else) and gave us a few more minutes to take a look at the food menu. Originally, they only had a few very minimalistic pizzas on the menu - marinara, margherita and the possibility of adding toppings such as Parma ham. Now there's a much wider range of pizzas, split into the "Rule Makers" (classic Italian style pizzas) and "Rule Breakers" (the more creative and, um, "English" approach to toppings, shall we say).
We both went for a margherita, the gold standard in assessing the quality of a pizzeria.
My first test was to tear into the crust and taste the "bread" of the pizza. Ladies and gentlemen, it was perfect.
The rich tomato sauce and creamy mozzarella melted into one another in a true, Napoli-style pizza pie.
(I say this - I haven't actually been to Naples BUT I've eaten many Neapolitan pizzas in Milan, one of Italy's biggest foodie cities, and can confirm that this pizza would have held its own over there!)
Even Michele gave it a thumbs up!
Our waitress came over and asked how we were getting on and if we'd like to try and of the home-infused olive oils. They had parmesan, basil, chilli, garlic, thyme and truffle.
We asked for a little selection and were presented with these:
I poured a small pool of each one on my plate and set to work with the remaining half of my pizza. Suddenly, the flavours of the margherita were transformed with each oil that I added! It was amazing! The parmesan oil had such a cheesy flavour, so adding it to the pizza made it taste more like a quattro formaggi. Meanwhile, the garlic oil had a beautiful, delicate flavour that enhanced the pizza even more than before. The chilli oil wasn't very spicy but it really tasted like chilli, if that makes sense at all, and was so delicious. I couldn't really taste the basil oil (it tasted very much like the parmesan oil to use but this may be because those two puddles ran into each other!)
Our favourites were the garlic and the chilli oil. To anyone visiting, I heartily recommend trying some of the oils - it's like having four pizzas in one!
Despite being absolutely stuffed after our pizzas, I'd been eyeing up the tiramisu on the blackboard menu since we'd sat down...
Starting off as quite mousse-y and getting progressively oozier as we worked our way down, it was a delicious blend of delicate coffee, chocolate and Amaretto. A far cry from those stodgy, rigid tiramisus made with whipped cream!
Ours was thoroughly polished off in a matter of minutes.
After having stuffed ourselves to the brink, we walked home along the river Exe. We stopped at the Quay and watched the firemen pumping the river water up to tackle the blaze at the Royal Clarence Hotel (I'm not sure if you've seen it in the news at all but here's a recap from a few days ago - the remains of the hotel have now sadly been demolished) before wandering along the river until we reached St. Bartholomew's Cemetery and the hellish steps to the city centre that are hard enough to haul yourself up without having gorged on pizza.
So we stopped for a minute and enjoyed the Autumn before we carried on our way.
Pizzastein is truly a fantastic spot for real Italian pizza in Exeter.
I couldn't fault it - Michele said it could have done with a little more salt in the tomato sauce and with being a bit bigger (but he's super picky, so don't listen to him).
I really hope that more people start visiting as I'd really love to see this become a permanent part of Exeter's foodie scene!
4 The Quay