I first heard about Otto Pizza from two girls I work with. They’re sisters, and apparently one of the best friends of their older brother had gone travelling around America, tasted a cornmeal crust pizza, come back to London, quit his job and gone all in on the UK’s first cornmeal crust pizza joint. Now I’m not a fan of pizza – I find it greasy, stodgy and too… well, bread-y – but both girls were insisting that Otto was the place to go. “The cornmeal crust,” they insisted, “is out of this world. And their toppings are awesome. You’ve got to try ‘em out. You’d really like it.”
Despite this praise I was still unconvinced until I went home, did a little research and discovered that Rich and Tom, the co-owners of Otto Pizza, hadn’t just gone anywhere in the States, they’d gone to Dove Vivi in Portland, OR. Portland. My home for a year. Foodie heaven. The place I’ve been trying to get back to ever since I lived there. That did it – I was sold, and I hadn’t even tried the pizza yet.
This was the second interview I’d set-up via. Twitter (the benefits of social networking!) and the Otto boys seemed more than happy to accomodate me, so on a Monday evening I rocked up to Notting Hill to taste the delights of cornmeal crust pizza.
I seem to have a knack for showing up to places when they’re pretty empty. When I arrived just past 7pm there were only a couple of people sat outside, but over the next few hours it filled up with all manner of people – an American couple were on the table to my right, a group of friends who sounded German to my left, a couple of young-ish giggly London girls over near the counter, a trio of older women behind me – but hey, this is Notting Hill. Eclectic is the name of the game.
In many ways Otto has done itself a justice by picking a small-ish cafe down the back of Westbourne Grove to be their first home. They have the benefit of it being a trendy area of town, full of locals and tourists alike. I was told that despite only being open for a couple of months the boys have been doing spectacularly well, even having to turn away customers for lack of room. Even better, their customers have appeared mostly through word-of-mouth, as their marketing campaign has been limited (something that’s bound to change, however, as earlier that day they had been interviewed and photographed by the Evening Standard), and Tom is the first to admit that Otto, whilst building up a good standing amongst locals, has yet to break into the lunchtime market; but the more people talk about them the busier they’re likely to get. In fact, the only real “event” they’ve held was a Vegan Taster Evening, as their menu features quite a few vegan dishes (despite the fact that neither Tom nor Rich are vegan, themselves). However, meat-eaters do not be discouraged as they have a fine selection of meaty cornmeal crust pizzas, as well as the fact that they are about to begin smoking and curing their own meat which means even more choice for you… maybe even some Meat Taster Evenings?
The idea came at the end of 2008 when Rich and Tom were road-tripping around the States and a friend in Portland insisted that they try out Dove Vivi. They were instantly enamoured (if one can be enamoured by a pizza) and spent the rest of their trip talking about it. 2009, then, was dedicated to planning, finding the premises, training with the chefs in Portland, finding suppliers in the UK, more training, and before you know it it’s June and Otto Pizza was born.
The first thing that comes to mind when I meet Tom (Rich is elsewhere for the evening) is just how young he is. How young both the boys are. It’s ambitious to quit your steady-income job (the boys met at Oxford University then went on to be a management consultant and an investment banker at a top firm in London) and go all in on a pizza joint, but they’re very much living the dream. And they seem happy – perhaps a little tired and rushed off their feet (Tom informs me that the shorts he’s currently wearing were one of two clean items of clothing left in his wardrobe, thanks to the long hours spent at Otto) – but happy. I envy them.
Tom talks with a passion about cornmeal crust pizza – a crust which is cooked twice to achieve optimum crisp, once blind-baked, then with added toppings; he talks animatedly about the different toppings, the delicate balance of flavours required to make a great Otto pizza (most of which were developed at Dove Vivi, but then adapted for the British palette, which, both Tom and I agree, is very different to the American); how the nutritional value and fibre-content of a cornmeal crust pizza is much greater than a regular refined white flour pizza – which you’re more likely to find in this country – and it’s therefore more filling, so you need less to feel and be full. That also means less cheese (which is not to say that the cheese they use is not extremely good and tasty) – less cheese means less fat, and less fat means healthier, happier you. I’m delighted to hear that there is also less dough (my main complaint), which means less bloating and more energy, instead of that tired sinking feeling post-pizza.
I ask Tom what he thinks the future holds for Otto and he replies almost instantly that their main wish (right now) is for more people to try cornmeal crust pizza and to fall in love with it as they did. For them, it’s all about the crust. Maybe in the future they could expand, but Tom is far more concerned with the here and now: come. Now. Try it. Love it – that’s all they ask.
Tom gives me a couple of recommendations (his favourite is the Balsamic Red Onions & Sweetcorn) then runs off to begin the evening service, and when my two tasting companions for the evening (both of whom have lived in Portland but, like myself, have never been to Dove Vivi) arrive we get stuck in with the Taster Pizza – the chef’s selection of six different slices. We receive slices of the Four Cheese, Aubergine, Balsamic Red Onions & Sweetcorn, Pesto & Ricotta, Sausage and Pepperoni as well as complimentary bottles of water (which I love – it reminds me of being in America!).
The first one we try is the Balsamic Red Onion & Sweetcorn and it’s delicious. The flavours are just right, combining the sweetness of the onions and sweetcorn with the lovely smokiness of the smoked mozzarella, but the real winner here is the crust. Wow. The crust. Neither of my companions can stop talking about it – one exclaims that he keeps looking forward to the end of the slice just so that he can have more crust. We make our way through each slice with great rapidity and pleasure; even I, who normally can manage one slice of pizza at the most, am wolfing down my share like a rabid dog. We reach the end of our fare, and my other friend stares mournfully at the empty platter, muttering, “I just want more crust…”
We each have our favourites – one friend and I am fans of the Balsamic Red Onion & Sweetcorn, the other the Pepperoni (a traditionalist at heart). The Aubergine is a little too blue-cheesy for me, whereas my friends love it; similarly I’m a big fan of the Pesto & Ricotta (the spinach pesto is beautiful), but both the boys complain that it’s a little “too green”. Regardless, we’re huge fans, united by the crust. My only complaint was that the four cheese was a bit of a cheese overload and not particularly special – the four cheeses used were a bit run-of-the-mill (mozzarella, fontina, provolone and parmesan), and perhaps it suffered somewhat from being the last slice eaten. Cheese, after all, congeals, and cold cheese is not good cheese. But it’s a standard pizza menu item, and if cheese is what you like cheese is what you get, along with a little chunky tomato sauce (which I did appreciate), parsley and garlic.
I want to try their Cashew Cheese (house-made vegan roasted red pepper and cashew cheese, fresh sweetcorn, caramelised onion and chives), Andouille (mozzarella, smoked mozzarella, spicy Cajun sausage, scallions and tomato sauce), Fig & Pancetta (mozzarella, blue cheese, fresh fig jam, pancetta and greens) and Butternut (cranberry sauce, mozzarella, smoked mozzarella, sautéed kale and butternut squash) pizzas, but for the evening I’m done. I mark them down for another day and tuck the menu away in my bag. Maybe even one day for take-away? After all there is a steady stream of punters waiting patiently at the door for their take-home pizza fix.
We finish things up with the Affogato with hazelnut ice-cream, and Pimm’s & Sangria sorbet scoops. All tasty enough (and the sorbets are homemade which means they really taste of Pimm’s and sangria, amazingly), but none really hold a candle to the pizza, and as it should be.
Prices are pretty reasonable, with a slice at £3.50, a half at £10 and £18 for a whole; perhaps a little more expensive than the usual suspects, but for the quality of ingredients and that wonderful crust you’re definitely getting value for your money. The decor is very chilled out and relaxed with a young vibe, and the music reflects this.
My friends and I wander home, talking animatedly about Otto. I’m amazed that they’ve changed my view of pizza (I’ve only ever vaguely liked one pizza before this point) – I’m actually looking forward to coming back again. We may differ on the toppings but there is one thing we can all agree on: it is so all about the crust.
As this was set-up on Twitter and I like traditions, Tom has a Twitter-inspired 140-characters-or-less reason why you should visit Otto Pizza. Tom says:
“Pizza, but not as you know it. Cornmeal crust brings texture, flavour and nutrition. Our delicious toppings will get your taste buds rocking.”
6 Chepstow Road
London W2 5BH
Tel: 0207 792 4088
That’s all for now folks. Hope you enjoyed and do get on down to Otto Pizza – promise you won’t regret it. Until next time, peace and love.