Unfair comparison?

PizzaExpress, Ecclesall Road
PizzaExpress, Ecclesall Road

EATING out is one of life’s pleasures, but it hasn’t always been the case…

As a child, I hardly ever saw the inside of a chip shop, never mind a restaurant. The one exception was a converted dairy in London’s Coptic Street.

On one or two momentous occasions we went ‘up to town’ to meet my dad from work – and were treated to lunch or dinner at Pizza Express.

This was only the second in what is now a 400-strong chain. It was an amazing place: all huge arcing windows, chequerboard tiled floor and a real pizza oven, spewing heat and flame.

It was handy for the West End, but this place had theatre enough of its own, with chefs who could throw discs of dough high into the air and spin pizzas on the tip of a finger.

It’s a spectacle I’ve remembered all my life, so it was with mounting expectation that we finally paid a visit to the new Pizza Express in Ecclesall Road.

Maybe it’s not fair to compare two such different places; this, after all, is a new-build restaurant, unlike most of its predecessors, which took pride in history and character.

The chain underwent a revamp at the end of last year at the hand of Ab Rogers, the designer who revitalised Little Chef. It’s certainly different.

The Ecclesall Road branch is a jazzy showcase of the now-trademark black and white stripes with bright red chairs, lampshades and pepper grinders.

A lofty two-storey atrium bears a bold mural – black, white and red – themed on Sheffield’s industrial heritage, and steel knives embedded into timber columns make handy coatpegs.

The open kitchen is still a feature, but not as I remember it. There’s no fiery oven here, just a 21st century stainless steel version. And the stripey-shirted pizzaiolo (that’s what they call the chefs) (yes, I know) didn’t give so much as a toss while we were looking.

But it’s clearly popular: the room is packed with families enjoying a teatime treat when we arrive. By the time we leave, their places have been taken by groups of students and couples settling down for a night out.

The menu has been given an overhaul to go with the new branding.

Back in 1965, when Peter Boizot launched the original restaurant, pizzas were still a novelty in this country and authenticity was all that mattered. But this is the age of waistline watching and healthy eating, so a new Leggera (light) range has been launched accordingly.

The principle is simple: cut a hole in the middle, fill it with salad and voila! A kind of pizza equivalent to a Polo mint, if you will.

There’s even a Leggera wine to go with it. Now that sounds like my cup of tea.

The grapes are harvested before they’re fully sweetened, which cuts the calorie count by 25%, to around 100 per glass (from £4.70 or £17.30 per bottle).

It’s not bad – appley, if a bit thin – but it’s still 100 calories and I’d sooner stick to elderflower pressé.

A battery of uniformed staff bustle between tables, ferrying trays and menus, with no obvious pattern as to who’s serving whom.

We sit in the floor-to-ceiling windows, which open up completely in warm weather. It’s certainly not warm tonight and a faulty automatic door blasts us with cold air every time anyone goes near it.

The menu is easy to navigate, starting with olives and almonds, progressing through starters and salads to pasta and three types of pizza: classic, Leggera and Romana.

We eschew the signature Dough Balls in favour of a classic Neapolitan salad and new Polpette meatballs.

You can’t go far wrong with salad and this is good enough: thick slices of mozzarella and not-very-tasty tomato, with fresh basil and little blobs of pesto that zip up the flavour.

The beef meatballs have been baked in a tangy bolognese sauce and would be fine if they were a bit hotter.

On to the main course and I’m trying the new Leggera pizza range: padana, in this case.

The boast is of “thinner, crispier Romano dough” and a topping that weighs in at under 500 calories.

It’s certainly thin, but there’s nothing crispy about it and, to be honest, I’m surprised it amounts to anything like 500 calories.

The topping consists of some spinach, red onion, a few shavings of goat’s cheese, some very sweet red onion marmalade and a pile of rocket to fill the hole.

Pollo pesto is a bowl of penne with chicken, mushrooms, red onion and cheese sauce. It’s nicely presented – a cast iron dish inside a white china bowl – but looks pretty anaemic. “Perfectly acceptable,” says my companion. Which about sums up the entire experience.

Desserts include various sundaes, cakes, and dough balls with Nutella – ugh! For those wanting something lighter, there’s also a selection of mini puddings that come with coffee.

My ever-obliging companion troughs his way appreciatively through an enormous Toffee Fudge Glory: a feast of ice cream, toffee sauce, pieces of fudge and Italian wafers. We finish our meal with macchiato.

Three-course dinner, excluding drinks and service, from £13.60-£22.25 per person.

lVerdict: Perfectly acceptable, but more café than restaurant and not a patch on the original.

lOpen: Open Mon-Sat 11.30am-11pm, Sun 12-10pm.

Pizza Express, 483 Ecclesall Road, Sheffield (0114) 267 6626