"Funky" said my original guest as we went in for a midsummer lunch back in the early summer of 1996. He was referring to anand zenz's wild and wavy light fittings and the curvaceous birch ply wobbling around the ceilings like a trendy stage set at the NT. The matching tables were beginning to show signs of wear and tear, but who cares? When they're covered with the colourful foot wide pizzas and with wine glasses filling the gaps in between, the effect is festive enough. This time, right at the end of January 1998, I noticed how well the tiny spot lights bring out the Mediterranean colours of the food.
The proprietor is Sami Wasif, not Italian as you might expect the owner of a pizzeria to be, but Egyptian. He has lived in Italy for long enough to absorb plenty of culinary culture and he is not afraid to learn, to experiment and to innovate. He is particularly proud of his wine list, going to enormous lengths to choose wines that match his food. Above all, he offers his guests extraordinary quality for the price. With all the still table wines costing under twelve pounds fifty, and most around a tenner, you really can't go wrong.
I think Sami exhibits that particular Eastern Mediterranean hospitality that translates into a generosity of portions and ingredients wihout charging the earth. But he's also shrewd enough to realise that his guests really appreciate value for money which is why the place is packed every night. Having said that, tables turn without undue pressure, and friends (and readers who have sent emails) have all reported that with such excellent wine to drink the oaccasional wait for a table passed very pleasantly.
The accent is on simplicity: there are a few hot and cold starters. On our first visit we enjoyed a crisp rocket salad with fresh parmesan cheese, £4.80. The hot garlic and cheesy pizza bread starters, £3.10 are vast - complete pizzas in their own right, so beware! We tried a Salami and Emmental focaccia sandwich, £5.50. The filling was nice, but I found the authentic cold pre-cooked pizza bread rather too dry and unyielding. I think it would have been much better if it was made with ciabatta bread. An avocado and crab salad £4.90 was generous with plenty of tasty dressed crab filling, and the Aubergine roasted red pepper and anchovy salad £4.90, had lovely textures and colours with flavours to match.
The pizzas themselves are formidable. Twelve inchers can look a bit daunting to the faint hearted, but fear not, the dough is wonderfully crisp and light, and the toppings are generous and moist. Some pizzas are like chewing gum on cardboard, but not here! On our first visit I tried the American Hot £5.30, because a friend had said that the pepperoni is great. It was - plenty of slices that were both meaty and spicy. This time we shared two pizze: the first was called La Dolce Vita £6.50. Zefirelli would surely have enjoyed the abundance of molten dolcelatte smothered with plenty of crisp peppery rocket leaves. The other pizza was topped with smoked salmon £7.50, which although it might offend purists, really works well.
On the first visit my friend had Calzone Tradizionale, that wondrous pizza pie made from pizza dough sealed up like a giant Cornish pasty. When he sliced into it, steam wafted out together with a heady aroma of garlic, tomato, cheese, peppers and goodness knows what else. It kept him quiet for quite a while, good value for £6.70 we both thought.
We washed our starters down with a glasses of Peroni Italian beer, (£2.50 a bottle), then we knocked off glasses of a lovely gooseberry tangy South African Sauvignon Blanc, £10.95 a bottle, and another outstanding South African Red, Leef op Hoop, which at £12.25 is the most expensive wine on the list!
There are three fairly standard desserts priced at £4.20 for raspberry chocolate truffle or fresh fruit flan. Tiramisu is £3.90. Last time we found the desserts were adequate but not exciting. This time we really hadn't room for any, as I suspect is the case with most diners. I don't think Eco is really a pudding sort of place, unless your appetite is that of a killer whale!
If you want to eat well without spending a fortune and drink well into the bargain, in a buzzy place that's - well funky's what we said, we still recommend ECO for best pizzeria South of the River.
Clifford Mould, January 30th 1998
Eco Pizzeria, 162 Clapham High Street, London SW4 7UG
Tel: 020 7978 1108
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