What would the weekend be without a forced march to Pizza Express for a shake of the Porn-sized pepper shaker and glorified cheese on toast with twenty three divorced dads and their bored looking offspring? Shared custody and weekend visitation rights must have fast food built into the contract. Not that pizza is merely the preserve of fathers who need something to fill the gaping hole between the the cinema and the video store. Ive eaten at Pizza Express so often that the menu reads like an autobiography. La Reine favoured during youth when pretending sophistication with a man I intended to sleep with afterwards. Garlic bread and a Neptune with anchovies when I didnt. An American with pepperoni when the date obviously didnt want to sleep with me either. A Giardinerri when I was a vegetarian, and a Marguerita, split four ways when the kids were small, which I always finished.
The latest storyline is a request from my younger daughter to have a pizza party. Not unusual - at the local branch there always seems to be some off-her face woman, wincing like a a sufferer of post-traumatic stress disorder every time a baloon bursts, sprinting round a long table of squirming children. Over the years I have been that woman and its not pretty. But this time she wanted to make the pizza and since Candida or Ganglion, or some such sweetie from school had already done it, the precendent was set. Oh happy day. Indeed, many branches of Pizza Express do school visits when kids can throw bits of dough around before it is cooked, as opposed to afterwards. I tried a few locally but they could only accommodate us during the two and a half grand school term, or in the ski-ing in Val dIsere holidays. What about a branch in the city? suggested the nice Pizza Express lady - they are quiet at the weekends. I blanched (which is about normal for me). It was too much to ask the entrepid mummies of Kensington to venture that far from the hairdressers in their 4-wheel drive, all terrain Range Rovers. Im sure they think EC1 is a boy band.
So I turned to The Red Pepper Group which owns a number of neighbourhood restaurants across London such as the Purple Sage, Green Olive, White Onion, etc. as well as Crivellis Garden in the National Gallery. Most are Italian with generic Mediterranean influences and many, like the one in the National Gallery, have a wood oven for the ubiquitous pizza. The original restaurant, The Red Pepper, is near Little Venice - the picturesque part of London which so easily could be Kilburn but for the smell of money wafting off the canal. Though really, it's more homeopathic than little Venice, so don't get out your gondolla yet.
Upstairs is a small restaurant with white walls, a bar, and plain wooden tables and chairs, but we colonised the downstairs room - a galley kitchen and a yawning wood oven which would do Hansel and Gretel proud. Or faced with lunch with the Britney Spears fan club, maybe Im just projecting.
The chef Nino did a little demonstration, handed out balls of dough and showed the girls how to knead it. Later we had a pizza twirling contest and each child added her own toppings before they were baked in the oven. Most efforts looked like relief maps of Australia but were speedily and fully consumed. The coke flowed, often across the table, babies were hoisted on to any available hip, including that of the chef, the waitress and the Manager. Everyone smiled and we adults sat in the corner and pretended to be stuffed crusts.
Its a simple menu - a few salads like grilled aubergine with mozarella, smoked duck, or wild mushrooms with rocket. Alternatively there are some offbeat pasta dishes - ravioli with peas and langoustine, tagliatelle with rabbit ragout (bunny stew - one to get the Britneys squealing), or pappardelle with chicken livers and sage. These are complemented by several more substantial dishes which change daily.
We had garlic bread and bruschetta both of which were fairly straighforward and unremarkable though the chopped tomatoes a tad tasteless. We also had Pizza Speck with - gosh, youre quick, speck, mozzarella and gorgonzola which was delicious, and a very good Pizza Napoli with anchovies, capers and oregano which would give you a fair idea of my intentions vis a vis the man who was with me. Ah husbands - you always do sleep with them afterwards, only its usually not a euphamism. We also had a lemon and coconut mousse cake from the groups adjescant shop Peppers which was quickly devoured. My Gucci Queen girlfriend Heidi lives nearby, and as the contents of her dinner parties often arrive in a Red Pepper box, I can vouch for other pizzas being of a generally high standard. But you know - pizza is pizza is bread dough with a topping. Service, is where this place excells. Staff were cheerful, happy. endlessly helpful and genuinely warm and welcoming to the children. It was the most enjoyable, stress-free meal for fourteen tweenies I have ever regretted organising. And believe me, regrets, Ive had a few...