We took up the invite to try out the new gluten free menu from Pizza Express on Tuesday evening, the day of the launch.
We had been pleased to find elements in Pizza Express’s press release that demonstrated they had gone further than other companies which have recently jumped on the Gluten Free bandwagon. For example they were clear to point out that their normal gluten pizza bases were rolled out with flour. So they had taken the decision to remove this contamination risk by swapping the flour to gluten free flour instead. A great move! It’s often the little details that make a difference to being glutened or not when eating out so when we read they’d taken this sensible approach we were optimistic about the experience we’d have.
Their press release was also reassuring with care taken to explain how they had taken measures to reduce the risk of cross contamination and adopted,
’.. a rigorous training programme to ensure its restaurant teams are familiar with the needs of customers who cannot eat gluten and new ways of working. Separate ladles will be used to spread PizzaExpress’ famous Passata sauce onto gluten-free bases, while new mozzarella packets and Passata jars will be opened when preparing gluten-free pizzas. Clean pizza peels (the large spade-like utensils used to take the pizzas out of the oven) will be used, while new pizza screens (the round, metal frames that the pizzas are stretched onto) have been purchased and will be stored separately to those used for PizzaExpress’ regular pizzas.’
Pizza Express have also been savvy in launching a new gluten free childrens’ menu at the same time, which includes a small kid size GF pizza,
‘Helping children who can’t eat gluten by introducing a gluten-free base and gluten-free desserts’
We were also impressed that they’d made a real point of shouting about their new gluten free menu on their Facebook page by changing the banner picture, something which we don’t think we’ve seen another chain do as yet. All of which made us think that Pizza Express must be committed to this new range.
It was quite a shock visiting our local branch for the first time in over 5 years. The decor had radically changed and it reminded us of all the meals and birthday party events we’d had there before being diagnosed. It sunk in that like so many other Coeliacs we’d enforced a ban upon ourselves visiting such places, as being surrounded by diners tucking into crunchy garlic bread and tasty pizzas whilst we ate a bowl of salad leaves was never fun. It reinforced to us that the big difference that a chain like Pizza Express makes by devising a gluten free menu is access and choice and ultimately freedom.
One of our team has a Hen do coming up and has already been trying to research the local restaurants where they’re visiting to see if there’s any that will do gluten free properly. Just like Starbucks and their gluten free rolls Pizza Express offers all Coeliacs the comfort that no matter where they may visit in the UK they should at least be able to locate a Pizza Express and dive in and eat safely. For as much as some Coeliacs may dismiss chains for their formulaic food and worry about the health effects of calorie laden pizza and pasta, we can’t ignore the fact that when one launches a gluten free menu and does it well, they offer continuity and safety for us as everything is led by the head office.
We expected the ordering to be simple.
However, one look at the menu and we had to read it twice. Some items had NGCI (no gluten containing ingredient logos) next to them i.e. the Marcona salted almonds. However, others that we thought should be naturally gluten free like the Polenta chips* and Sorbet dessert didn’t. When you look over the pizza choices it doesn’t become much clearer. There’s two choices of pizzas Romano and Classic. At the bottom of the menu a black box explains that the Classic pizzas can be made with gluten free bases. But there was no mention about which toppings were also gluten free. [*these aren’t GF due to the manufacturing process].
Which of course meant we still had to ask the poor waiter the usual 101 questions ref what we could order, how it was cooked and what toppings were actually gluten free. This was a bit disappointing as we think given that this was a big launch for Pizza Express their menu designers could have worked harder to make it simpler. It implied to us that although the gluten free options had been tested recently in Oxfordshire they hadn’t been tested throughly enough, at least not by picky Coeliacs or more bloggers.
In fact one of us was totally confused and thought that the green boxes on the menu corresponded to the GF items as many just happened to have NGCI (no gluten containing ingredients) next to them. This was not the case. Some items which were from the old menu, and were naturally gluten free weren’t given the NGCI label which seemed a bit of a missed opportunity.
Although it’s nice to feel included and have one menu for all diners so you don’t feel like the ‘only Coeliac in the village’ we think that it’d be a lot simpler for Pizza Express to follow the lead of Zizzi (their sister company) and Carluccios and launch dedicated gluten free menus so there’s less confusion and less unnecessary questions for busy waiters.
However, we can understand that Pizza Express may have wanted to be inclusive and keep the GF items on the main menu so Coeliac customers don’t feel like second class diners. We admire this approach but think their designers can do more to simplify the gluten free ordering process and highlight suitable GF dishes. Grumble over. So what did we actually have…?
What we ate….
- Risotto d’Oro £5.45
- Tomato and Mozzarella salad with pesto £4.95
- Padana pizza £11 ish
- Fiorentina £8 ish
- with coleslaw £2.95
- Green’s Gluten Free Pilsner £4.45 (330ml)
- A Gin and Tonic
- Gluten Free Brownie (we asked for cream with this) and it came with complementary coffee £4.25
- Raspberry sorbet (minus the gluten twirl stick) aprox £4+
What we thought overall ….
Overall we really like the menu. How refreshing to actually be able to order a starter, a main AND a dessert! Hello restaurateurs take note - it’s the 21st century and Coeliacs want to eat out with their friends. Freedom at last!
Fortunately the very friendly, helpful and knowledgeable staff were on hand to help explain which of the pizza toppings were OK to choose.
The toppings that are off the menu for Coeliacs because they either contain gluten or are made in the same facility where there is gluten are:
- Hot spiced beef
And these sauces are also off the pizza menu for Coeliacs,
- Gruyere sauce
- Parmesan sauce
Find out more online.
It would make sense though to clearly mark this on the menu as at busy times having to ask a waiter for more details could put some customers off and not everybody is happy to question their waiters in depth when out for a meal - unlike us!
Our starters were the new butternut squash risotto, (with Gorganzola cheese) and the tomato and mozzarella salad with pesto dressing. These arrived promptly and looked lovely.
Unfortunately after just one mouthful of the risotto each we were struggling.
It was extremely salty. As if you’d swallowed a sip of the Med sea. We spoke to the waitress who checked with the kitchen who thought the cause was the cheese within the dish. They kindly offered to make us another without the cheese. So we asked for the cheese to be put in a side bowl for us to add as required.
We tucked into the tomato and mozzarella whilst we were waiting and this was very nice, and everything you’d expect a tomato mozzarella salad to be, simple and refreshing.
When the second risotto arrived we keenly tried this out. It was much better than the first. However, we soon realised that it was seasoned and already had the addition of salt from the stock used. So of course by adding the cheese this had made the first one unpleasantly salty. We suggested that as the risotto was smallish (starter size) the addition of such a large quantity of cheese to an already salted risotto wasn’t necessary (as you can see from our picture below that’s a lotta cheese for an ickle starter).
We also didn’t really understand the big bunch of Rocket added to the dish. We do love our greens but a few versus a lot would’ve been better. But these are all very minor quibbles. The Risotto was much much better when we just added a few cubes of the cheese to it ourselves.
We couldn’t praise the staff enough, they were very helpful and keen to ensure that we both had food we could eat and enjoy.
Green’s GF Beer was fab. But it did seem odd it was served in a Peroni beer glass. We’re sure other customers wouldn’t care but as a Coeliac it would be nice to see it in a plain glass or a Green’s branded one to show that the GF drink side of things had been thought through to the final touches.
For the main course of course we had both opted for the NEW gluten free pizza. The ingredients of the new base are,
- Maize Starch, modified tapioca starch, rice flour, potato protein
- Egg Free
- Dairy Free
- Wheat Free (nil codex wheat starch yay!)
- Vegan & suitable for Vegetarians*
*See their full allergy / ingredients here
Of course what you’re all really dying to know is ‘what was the pizza like?!’. After the confusion of what toppings were available we plumped for a Fiorentina (egg, spinach, olives) and a Padana (Goats cheese, mozzarella, spinach, red & caramelised onions, garlic oil).
These both arrived on a black slate (used to differentiate between the gluten free pizzas). Both looked delicious. For the Fiorentina we had asked for the egg to be medium set but not hard.
The waitress asked if the egg was OK and at first glance it did appear to be so as the egg looked set on top. But after moving some of the topping to cut into the pizza it was clear that the egg, although appearing set on the yolk, had clear liquid egg white in the body of the pizza. So unfortunately we had to call back our lovely waitress again and ask for it to be cooked a bit longer. After which it was perfect.
It was in fact crisper on the edge that the Padana pizza and we much preferred this. The waitress explained that we were the first people they’d cooked any of the gluten free pizzas for and they’d cooked it for the same time as the would do normally for the (evil) gluten ones. They realised that cooking the gluten free pizzas varied a bit as the heat didn’t travel through the pizza in quite the same way as the gluten ones.
We didn’t enjoy the Padana as much as the Fiorentina as we didn’t realise it came with the very sweet onion relish all over it. As you can see by our picture the Fiorentina was our favourite!
We were stuffed by now but ploughed on to try the desserts - all in the name for good research for you Dear Readers! We preferred the raspberry sorbet (minus the gluten twirl stick) off the menu to the new gluten brownie as we’re not very sweet toothed. The sorbet was as tasty as it was pretty!
But we can imagine brownie fans loving this new addition to the gluten free menu.
[Brownie contains egg and soy and is listed as nut free on their Allergen menu although always double check in the restaurant]
And indeed our waitress said this was now her favourite and they’d already had people visit that evening just for coffee and the brownie. So it seems this will be an instant hit amongst Coeliacs and gym bunnies alike.
Just like any good review you can’t beat a pros and cons list so here’s ours:
- The tomato and morazella starter was lovely, fresh tasting pesto - flavour heaven. We just wish they’d hurry up and do a great bruschetta and garlic bread as well! And GF dough balls…
- The presentation was great, the pizzas really stood out on the black pizza boards and it was a clever way for staff to ensure they don’t mix up pizza bases as only the GF pizzas are served on this
- The crust had a comforting ‘Rich Tea’ biscuit flavour which allowed the toppings to shine
- The base was crispy around the outer edge
- The tomato sauce flavour was authentic and tasted of real tomatoes
- The coleslaw was eye catching and quirky made from purple cabbage with apple added for extra sweetness, half the team liked it half found it too sweet - either way it was different and we liked it for that reason
- The raspberry sorbet was devine, very natural tasting and tart so that you feel it’s punch in the back of your cheeks. A great choice for dairy free or lactose free coeliacs.
- Including coffee with the brownie is a nice touch so you have a full dessert experience
- The brownie was well balanced, not too sweet, firm and tasted of almonds giving it good texture and taste
- The pizza base texture needs work, it was more like a nice naan bread (not uncommon as finding the holy grail of the perfect crispy pizza base is always tricky and cooking them differs to the timings you’d use for normal gluten ones) yet it was one of the best we’ve ever tasted
- There was too much topping in the middle on both pizzas making the centre soggier, we fed this back to the staff and they were pleased to have the feedback and would experiment with cooking this with less in the centre themselves
- We loved the choice of gluten free beer but at £4.45 a bottle (330ml) we fear that only one or two die hard Coeliac beer fans will order one or two, especially when the Aspall cider is just £3.95 per (300ml) bottle.
- Our arm muscles were exhausted by the end of the meal, like a lot of gluten free pizza chain pizza bases (Ask & Prezzo) they weren’t crispy enough to cut like a normal pizza so we found ourselves in a constant battle with our knife and fork of trying to cut away a slice, great for our biceps not so great for relaxing dining.
- We’d recommend that Pizza Express invest in some different coloured pizza cutters and that the waiters cut the pizza up into slices at your table for you so it’s easier to eat
- The brownie was nice but tiny..true dessert fans may be disappointed by the size
(We scored this due to having a long wait to be served as it was full of yummy mummies with unruly children causing a ruckas. Whatever happened to parents teaching their children good manners when eating out?)
Staff knowledge 9/10
Three members of staff all separately explained the new cross contamination issues, (two of them unprompted), and they’d all said they’d learnt new things about Coeliac Disease as part of the training they’d had so we think if Pizza Express can keep this training up for new staff then they’re onto something good!
Coeliac Factor 7/10
We weren’t made to feel like ‘pain in the ass Coeliacs’ but we still had to ask a lot of questions which we know shyer coeliacs won’t do. So if they made their menu clearer then that’d be great. It’d also be good if they made it clearer which items were dairy free as most Coeliacs have to avoid this during the first year of diagnosis. Also marking up the items that could easily be adapted to GF would be lovely. We know chains sometimes don’t like to as there’s a risk that staff may make mistakes but if there is a good internal process/ guide then this should work well. Nandos are good at this so Pizza Express could do more and widen their appeal to more Coeliacs and those with other dietary restrictions.
In our opinion pizza is all about the base. We say it’s on a level with ASK’s GF base but blows Prezzo’s out of the water. We’re also pleased that the base is both gluten free and dairy free. A good touch that other chains miss. If they can get more crunch factor in their pizza bases we’d definitely up our scores. We suspect they could easily do this by just cooking them for a few minutes longer.
Would we recommend it to a friend or newbie coeliac?
Yes! At last there’s a place to go on nearly every high street where you can get a safe, tasty and enjoyable meal and gf beer!
Pizza Express do a lot of offers. At the moment there’s 25% off main courses until the 23rd of May. Just click here to find out more on their website. Likewise the Pizza Express apps on iOS and Android also feature news and offers.
And there’a always apps like Vouchercloud and similar which means that now Coeliacs can actually bag a bargin meal just like everyone else!
If you want to keep up to date with Pizza Express’s developments of their gluten free menu be sure to follow them on Facebook and Twitter.
What do you think?
Have you tried the new adult or gluten free kids menu? What do you think?
PS: we’ve had lots of lovely comments on this review on our Facebook Page. For those of you with Coeliac Disease and other dietary restrictions here’s Pizza Express’s full list of allergens so you view what you can eat in full. Enjoy.