The way people had been banging on about Franco Manca opening you’d think Jesus was being resurrected and opening a pizza joint.
Truth is, like many people, I’ve been to another branch somewhere down south before and knew how good these guys were. From memory, the food was decent value and the crust made my gob happy. So when I was invited to try out some of the grub available ahead of the official launch on Thursday, I put my raging Croatia hangover/comedown to one side. I wanted to be in bed binge watching Black Mirror, truth be told, but not even severe dehydration was keeping me away from pizza.
Next to the neon lights of Nocturnal Animals, the restaurant sits at the lower end of Bennetts Hill before you hit the chains – the irony of ASK being directly opposite isn’t lost on anyone. Inside you’ll find high ceilings, a large bright space and a pretty simple sourdough pizza menu. Here’s the facts: ingredients are sourced directly from ether Italy or a carefully chosen selection of UK supplies. The dough is made every morning and all sauces are created on site. Keen to stand out, these guys even have their own brand of beers and coffee made specifically for the restaurants, of which there’s now around 45 (with more to open up north imminently). My hangover made me ask a lot more questions than usual, what can I say.
We kicked off with nocellara olives, lamb sausage cooked with potatoes, and the cured meats board. Good meaty sausage morsels sat in a tomato sauce (I’m assuming the same paste that tops most pizzas here?) topped with mozzarella – I gave most of my attention to the generous platter of cured meat and salami. At the end of the day, you don’t come here for the snacks, so let’s get to the good stuff..
Crusts came well judged, with the gorgeous char marks you hope to see from a bubbling base. The base itself is thin, letting the toppings do the talking. Speaking of which, my Number 5 had a good balance of salty mouthfuls. Anchovies melting into the stringy cheese, capers adding pops of extra savoury to each bite, and soft olives licked by flames. The Number 7, created by the head chef of the brand, boasts generous lumps of the afore mentioned lamb sausage, aubergine and wild garlic pesto – Ian added a tomato base because he thinks he knows better. We agreed the pesto didn’t add much flavour but did add unnecessary moisture, so I’d ditch that next time.
There’s extra toppings if you so wish, and the base can be adapted to suit your tastes. Like it spicy? Ask for the red chilli sauce base. Want it gluten free – you got it. Dips for your woodfired crusts cost extra and aren’t worth the money so I’d go with the chilli olive oil already on the table, if you like to use your crusts for mopping up tasty things that make you fat as I do. There’s a specials board with daily offers and extra nibbles you won’t see on the main menu, too, so keep an eye out for that.
Prices are reasonable, with nibbles to start coming in about £4 and pizzas sitting around £6-8, and service is fine although no one working looked that happy. There are places offering much less for much more just yards away, so I’ve no doubt this place will do well.
Is it the best pizza in the city centre now? No. There’s better in my opinion – but it’s not bad. While we have great pizza in semi-central Birmingham (hello Otto, Baked in Brick, and Laghi’s Deli), it’s about time we had something worth getting excited about slap bang in the centre. With competition opening literally across the road in a month or so, this may not end up being the best place on Bennetts Hill to grab pizza but I’m looking forward to finding out.
Franco Manca, 18 Bennetts Hill, Birmingham B2 5QJ
Disclosure: I was invited to dine at Franco Manca and the meal was complementary. I wasn’t asked to write a review.