Franco Manca, Chiswick

It’s rare to hear of a new restaurant that serves your favourite food, is situated in your neck of the woods, receives amazingly complimentary press from proper foodies, AND is cheaper than almost anything else you’ll find in long-time yuppified West London, or indeed anywhere else. Franco Manca fits all of these categories.

So when our friends offered to take us there, in exchange for a parking ticket incurred when picking up some of their stuff before the Welsh holiday I detailed a couple of weeks ago (not that they needed to – it wasn’t them who completely missed the “don’t park here you idiot” sign slap bang next to the car), I couldn’t have been more enthusiastic. In the end, they weren’t able to come as their little girl was sick, but B and I decided to take advantage of the booking and have a date night instead.

We arrived for our 8pm to a queue outside the restaurant. This would be fair enough if it was for unreserved seating, but it was entirely made up of people who’d booked tables. Okay… Less okay, though, after 15 minutes when we still hadn’t been seated – and nor had anyone else in front of us (except for the party of four who picked precisely the right time to queue-jump).

The floodgates finally opened, and we took a seat, but spent the next ten minutes waiting for a menu, before moving  ourselves to a slightly more private table that happily had menus already in place. More waiting, with a busboy eventually taking our order when we asked what was going on. Not that this necessarily helped; we received a single dirty salad (which we had to send back), which was replaced by a clean but undressed salad, and no drinks, which they’d forgotten, and which eventually came after another nudge (the £9.20 bottle of Barbera – the only red on the menu – was lovely, earthy and way too easy to drink).

A few minutes later, the first pizza arrived – but it was the wrong one (this also happened after we’d eaten, and the waitress who brought them seemed annoyed we didn’t take them). The right ones arrived soon after – we’d both ordered the chorizo pizza, with two varieties of Brindisa-source chorizo which Bree thought were excellent but I found a bit disappointing, the pork-fat grating slightly against the freshness of the topping. The tomato sauce, though, was flawless, and the cheese was excellent – and the sourdough base, which they rightly celebrate at Franco Manca, was a joy, although it really was too burnt on the underside and the charcoal taste was overly dominant (Bree had to leave maybe a quarter of her base for this reason, though I was luckier).

So the pizza was really excellent – they make a big deal of the provenance of their ingredients, taking up a quarter of the menu space to boast about it, and they’re superb without doubt. But we managed to go on a night where they were clearly overmatched, completely full (at 8pm anyway – by 9pm there were several free tables), and, judging by the loud and embarrassing arguments between various waiting staff, they knew things had gone seriously wrong.

As well as the above complaints, the restaurant was too hot; Bree was sitting under an inexplicable spotlight; other customers ended up serving themselves when the waiting staff didn’t appear; our pizzas were radically different sizes; our waitress was moody, to put it politely (she was the one who’d been arguing with the maitre d’, with good reason, I suspect); and for some reason, halfway through our meal, piped music was suddenly put on way too loudly, with the volume oscillating without rhyme or reason for the next twenty minutes.

It really was one of those occasions where, after a while, it becomes more funny than annoying (though it was annoying for quite a while). Bree mentioned this to the maitre d’, and managed to get us 20% off the bill, and £20 for two pizzas and a bottle of wine really isn’t bad. Our tip went to the incompetent but smiling and sweet-natured busboy who gave us the only real service, and I hope he pocketed it rather than sharing it with his hopeless colleagues.

I’m glad our friends didn’t come out, in the end, as I’m sure they’d have been embarrassed by the service and it wouldn’t have made for a relaxing evening. But despite the negativity of this review, the food really was superb – better than I’ve ever had in the UK in terms of simple, fresh, perfectly cooked pizza – and I’d certainly go back. The desire to serve genuinely excellent food at a really low price is fantastic, and I wonder if tonight was a perfect storm of negative circumstances. The simplicity of the menu – six pizzas, one red wine, one white wine, no desserts – is absolutely right for this kind of restaurant (well, a dessert might be nice sometimes), and the location is perfect.

It wasn’t the evening we were expecting, and service really was unacceptably poor. But it’s a brand new restaurant, the important things were excellent, and it’s given me something juicy to write about. I’m looking forward to going back; just maybe not on Saturday night.

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    • justine
    • January 17th, 2010

    if only more people had your attitude towards dining, mark! most people don’t understand that every restaurant does, on occasion, have bad nights: nothing goes right, no matter how hard you try.

    you’re officially in my google reader, btw! 🙂

    • James
    • January 17th, 2010

    I’d expect better tbh, their restaurant in Brixton is excellent (although you always have to queue). I’ve never had poor service in there. I suppose these are the risks that come with expanding. Good luck to them, I want pizza for brekkie now.!

    • porkpie
    • January 17th, 2010

    Sounds like you hit it at the wrong time indeed. Mind you when we went it was a freezing cold lunchtime just as it had opened. The service was still a bit slow but they didn’t have enough punters in to get quite so in the weeds. Shame about the over-firing of the base too, suppose you have to take time to get used to a new wood oven.

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