The Leith Glutton
Walkabout in pizza land
The early years of this century were an exciting time on the Leith food scene, in that quiet period after The X Factor stopped gripping the nation and Susan Boyle was as yet undiscovered, La Favorita came along and made Saturday night alright for pizza. Reflecting Leith’s growing sophistication – their cute branded Fiats darting around with enormous steaming boxes were considered quite the thing.
In retrospect, some unlikely combos came out of that wood-fired oven, including The One With Sliced Chicken, Roast Potato, and Lashings of Green Pesto, which looked like a Hibs jersey on a plate. It probably had a menu name (The Peter Marinello?) but in our household it was called “The Winner Winner Chicken Dinner.”
La Fav continues to serve Leith valiantly, claiming over two million customers, even as a trio of hipster pizza-makers are setting down roots. But memory is a fickle beast, so I decide to test old against new. In the service of you, dear reader, we present the inaugural Leither Pizza Awards.
Our stroll up The Walk lasts 10 minutes and takes us back 15 years. La Fav is part of the Crolla empire; where isn’t? But retains its own sense of place – the takeaway business operates from next door.
The dine-in menu now sharper and more focused, offers starters, cichetti, pastas and desserts. We share a pair of small arancini, the fried Sicilian rice balls filled with ragu and oozing with cheese. They are good. And so are the pizzas.
Despite being the future once, there was a time, around Susan Boyle’s second album, when La Fav coasted. It was all a bit samey, focused on growth not quality.
Today we enjoy ourselves, perhaps helped by the remembrance of times past and a decent house red. The choices are now decidedly grown up. No New York toppings here: this is Italian.
There is sausage and friarelli, a distinctly bitter brassica that goes variously by the name of cime de rape or broccollini, though it’s appearance here is far removed from what I recognise as broccoli.
Checking nothing has been lost in translation, and that I’m getting the real deal on my pizza, the waiter collapses in laughter and asserts his Italian pedigree. “I’m from Puglia,” he chuckles, “and I know my friarelli. He does indeed – the delicious bitter notes offset by a generous tomato sauce, some sharp ndjua, and plenty of cheese.
The puttanesca is a grown-up pizza: olives, capers, anchovies and grated bottarga, a salted and cured fish roe. You might not be in Italy – the Leith tram works are in full swing outside the window – but you’re close.
It’s different down at Pizza Geeks. They branched out from Dalry and took on the former East Pizza shop on Commercial Street last March, nicknaming the premises The Tardis and serving up creations with geek-inspired names like The Mario, the Super Mario, The Shire, and Johnny Blaze.
Their food truck origins shine through. Think breaded MacGyver & Cheese Bytes (aw… bless the pun, it’s macaroni) with Dalek bread. My Chorizard, comes large or small, the dough is good and very well cooked, blistering and bubbling on delivery from the oven. Its tomato sauce is properly baked by intense heat, giving a good base for chorizo, black pudding, fresh chillies and honey. Frankly, it’s excellent.
Practical matters here, like being able to place an order or book a table, are more hit-and-miss. Like so many things, the hipsters are winning on foodie points but their beards seem to get in the way of the details. Noting that my dining companion this evening is sporting an impressive beard it seems like time to run for the hills, via Razzo.
Took Leith by storm two years ago, garnering rave reviews in the national press. It’s easy to see why.
Collecting a working-from-home pizza lunch is a real treat, and the one from Razzo lights up the week. It is hard to see how this could be bettered, unless there was a secret compartment hiding another pizza at the bottom of the box.
The base is light, with excellent flavour, and has been cooked at the right heat to rise and brown perfectly without a patch of scorch. Expecting Razzo to be good – this isn’t my first rodeo, reader – we ordered simply, simplicity often being the best test of quality.
The tomato sauce was superb, lightened by the buffalo mozzarella half melting onto it, with just enough milky moisture to soften the top of the crust without making the base soggy. This is sheer pizza joy.
The range of toppings is excellent and authentic (also featuring friarelli – clearly there’s a good vegetable supply chain opening up from Naples to Edinburgh). We ordered arancini here too, ragu and a spinach bechamel. They might not go viral in Sicily but they beat La Favorita hands down.
And so, feeling a little stuffed, metaphorically at least, come with me into Origano. Again on Leith Walk, the restaurant is on the right and the takeaway counter is on the left, the ubiquitous tramworks make getting from one to the other a feat of ordnance survey.
The old Leith Victoria India Rubber Mill is a great venue, with lots of industrial chic, clever lighting, and good use of space. I have a real soft spot for Origano. They opened up at the height of La Favorita’s dominance, a gutsy move for four friends who say they spotted a gap in the market.
This place is date-friendly, kid-friendly, family-friendly, elderly-uncle-comes-to-Edinburgh friendly. And they have the best tomatoes, I don’t mean sauce, I mean tomatoes; little oval juicy things grown on the volcanic slopes of Etna that burst in your mouth like little tomato bombs.
My go-to choice here is the Calabrese. Mozzarella and mascarpone calm the spicy sausage and njuda, with garlic, basil and the little oval Santos tomatoes on top. I like my chilli, and this is hot, but the cheeses take the sting away.
The texture is like tripping over the pavement only to find it’s made of fluffy marshmallow. This is, to be clear, a Very Good Thing. Other pizza toppings are available, but it’s hard to see why anyone would order them.
Okay, this is a bit of a cop-out. There is no verdict. They are different places with different vibes, doing different things. The best pizza in this test was Razzo’s. You’ll often find me in Origano. I can’t wait to go back to La Favorita and not just for old time’s sake. I’d happily get my inner geek run wild at Pizza Geeks, if only they’d sort their booking system out. In consultation with some happy pizza companions, here are the scores on the doors.
Base quality 9
Topping marks 10
Taste licks 10
Base quality 8
Topping marks 8
Taste licks 9
3. Pizza Geeks
Base quality 8
Topping marks 8
Taste licks 8
4. La Favorita
Base quality 7
Topping marks 8
Taste licks 7
The Winner, Razzo Pizza