Pizza Pilgrims - From Reggio Di Calabria to London
Ever had one too many drinks down at the pub and made a decision that you regret for the rest of your life? Perhaps. But it seems that in the world of food, it can be those very discussions that lead to some of the best ideas. When brothers Thom and James went down to the pub, they probably did not realise that the conversation that would ensue would lead them to a road trip around Italy in a little Piaggio van, nor going on to create one of London’s most loved pizza chains, Pizza Pilgrims.
Taking the leap from a “proper job” into the world of street food is not an easy one, and yet what seemed complicated all boiled down to two simple principles for the Elliot brothers: All you need to get started is a credit card and a van (with a pizza oven unconventionally built into the back of it – entirely unrecommended by the Piaggio manufacturers), and a whole lot of gumption.
Turn the clock back a few years and you would find James on a cookery course in Italy, learning the art of Italian cooking, but more so, noticing the number of little vans that drive around the streets – both nippy and distinctively Italian. On researching how they could get their hands on one, the boys discovered that an £1,000 import fee would incur for transporting the van back to England, so it made sense to start in the top of the toe of Italy, in Reggio Di Calabria, and to drive it home through the pizza heartland.
And so they began their pilgrimage, travelling from Cambria through Campanio, Lazio, Tuscany, Emilia Romagna, Piedmonte, Liguria, and most importantly Da Michele in Naples, where the service is reportedly surly, but their Margherita is the best the boys have ever eaten! Throughout their journey, the boys ate, practiced and crafted their pizza-making trade, learning from Italy’s finest home cooks and professionals. But sadly, the journey had to end at some point, and so they took their knowledge back to London to set up their first pizzeria. Bootstrapping their way through the first opening was the biggest challenge the boys faced, learning in a very hands-on way how to setup and run a restaurant.
Like a lot of startups, it seems that time was more precious in many ways, than money, requiring the Thom and James to spend nearly every waking hour at 11 Dean Street (and eating a lot of pizza – an estimated 1,000 in the first three years of business for Thom alone!). Without the right equipment or money to do what they wanted, the boys were lucky to have a hands-on and supportive team to get them off the ground. Mistakes were made by the bucket load, but with that said, the boys would not change much if they had their time again – learning the hard way is sometimes the best way.
Learning not only about pizza, but also about business and about people. Running your own business is certainly not the easiest choice and every day is still a school day for Thom and James. Their best advice is to just be prepared to give it your all, and it seems their passion, work and energy has certainly paid off.
The boys continue to have ambitious sights for the future of Pizza Pilgrims. On opening 11 Dean St, Thom swore to James that he never wanted to open another. And yet here they are, with five pizzerias across London – arguably the UK’s most stressful and busy city. So where to go from here? With their strong team ethos, Thom and James are keen to protect what they have before expanding further, however, you can be sure to see more Pizza Pilgrims springing up in the future.
Top Tips for Pizza-lovers:
What is your advice to someone wanting to make their own pizza oven?
The best thing to do is buy a ready-made kit for the dome - and then build your own base and insulation (which is the key to a good pizza oven). Making the dome is by far the hardest bit!
What’s your ultimate pizza topping and where do the best ingredients come from?
It is fair to say that the best pizza ingredients still come from Italy. We are constantly looking for options - but we still have all our cheese, tomatoes and flour going in from in and around Naples. In terms of toppings - our favourite is Nduja - a spicy cured sausage from Calabria. It melts on the pizza and tastes of pure chilli. Delish.