Award-winning Neapolitan-style pizza chain Santa Maria Pizzeria wasn’t necessarily looking for anywhere overly unusual when planning its latest location. But that’s certainly what it found after opening a pizza kitchen inside supercar showroom Duke of London. How did the opportunity even come about and what are the kitchen implications? Sam Lewis caught up with co-founder Pasquale Chionchio to find out.
A decade after debuting their first store in Ealing in 2010, Santa Maria Pizzeria founders Pasquale Chionchio and Angelo Ambrosio have added to the portfolio of stores they have across their three brands by opening their most ambitious site yet in the heart of West London classic car showroom Duke of London.
A lot has happened to the duo over the past decade, but they have always remained loyal to the values that started it all off in the first place.
“If you go to Naples, in every neighbourhood there is the local pizzeria, and it’s just a pizzeria, nothing else,” explains Chionchio. “Mine and Angelo’s dream was simply to recreate the local Neapolitan pizza. We didn’t want to be a restaurant or a super-fancy gourmet place — nothing like that. Just a popular, local pizzeria where, for a good price, you could get a smashing pizza for everyone.”
That was one reason — the other was a lack of funds to afford a ‘proper restaurant’ on the high street. “We could afford a small property in Ealing, not a high street location, but that did the job,” reflects Chionchio.
Santa Maria — so named because it first opened its doors on St Mary’s Road — has certainly cornered the market when it comes to traditional Neapolitan pizza. Chionchio describes the near complete lack of traditional pizza napoletana in the English capital prior to Santa Maria’s opening.
“Back then there were only two or three restaurants that were making Neapolitan pizza [in London]. Other restaurants were trying to compromise on standards and were making a style of pizza that was appealing to the British. We wanted to be authentic.
“We knew we couldn’t gamble this vision, this concept, in expensive high street places, but we could do so in a small location. That was our main selling point. We were the first to bring authentic Neapolitan pizza. From then on we opened another and another, one with pasta, and now we have eight places across the three brands, all over London,” he says.
A lucky break
The brand’s success wasn’t as simple as it might sound, however. There was a stroke of good fortune in store for Santa Maria within weeks of its opening. “We opened Valentine’s Day 2010, and two months later Time Out magazine made an issue about pizza. The front page was ‘London’s best pizza’ — and it was us! Two months after opening Santa Maria, this was the biggest thing that could have ever happened.
“We started as a local pizzeria, but when this happened we were rocketed into another dimension. We were the place to be. People travelled from all over London and beyond. Cambridge, Oxford, Brighton.
“We started to attract Neapolitans, people that loved what real pizza was, and we had a queue every day. We were overwhelmed, running out of dough, running out of ingredients.”
The oven is something we are very attached to. It’s a piece of art. It matches our philosophy with the pizza”
Eventually, the buzz died down, leaving Santa Maria with a hard core of followers that kept returning to its inconspicuous pizzerias. The early success could have left some owners over-ambitious, giving them the confidence to expand beyond their means, but Chionchio and Ambrosio held back and did what they do best.
“After a while the attention did start to fade, but we stayed authentic and true to the game,” says Chionchio. “We always loved what we were doing, and the best thing for us was to serve what the Neapolitan people wanted.”
This led to the business growing in a way that he describes as slow but organic. “We don’t have major investors, we don’t have funds or loans. It’s all our funds in the company — me and Angelo. We still work from the micro to the macro management. We still check the product on a daily basis, making sure things are run the way we want, so it’s still a family business.
“Ours may not be the fanciest place, but what we always wanted was to make sure we had the best ingredients, the best chefs in the game, the best ovens — every single detail. People say, ‘I can make pizza at home with my kids.’ And, of course, you can. But what we make is something premium, something that’s the best. All the small details create the best pizza.”
And Chionchio is serious when he talks about this attention to detail. Take Santa Maria’s wood-fired ovens, which are handmade by an artisan supplier from Naples.
“Every time [we need one], he ships a couple of pallets of materials in — sand from Vesuvius, the volcano, and handmade bricks, everything. He ships everything over, flies over himself and, over two weeks, builds the oven brick-by-brick. Then he flies back to Naples. It’s something we are very attached to. It’s a piece of art. It matches our philosophy with the pizza.”
There is no doubt in Chionchio’s mind that these small details make the difference. The proof is in the pudding — or the pizza. “For us,” he remarks, “the best compliment is when a Neapolitan says, ‘you make me feel at home. I close my eyes and I feel at home.’ That was our goal.”
An unusual combination
Chionchio and Ambrosio’s latest venture is another Santa Maria branch. Just like the other stores, it is a sit-in or takeaway pizzeria. It is also situated in West London — Brentford, to be specific. To walk between the original Santa Maria in Ealing and this new location would take around 40 minutes.
What is different this time is that it is in classic car showroom, Duke of London. Established in 2014, Duke of London was founded by a then-19-year-old Merlin McCormack, who had been selling cars since the age of 11. The business is a family affair, with Merlin’s brother Algy and father Lance also involved.
It’s like, ‘oh, we’ll just move a car over there and we can put the oven here.’ It was almost too much. We’ve never had so much space in our lives”
The trio have been customers at the Ealing branch since it was opened. “The boys grew up on our pizza, so when Merlin, a couple of years ago, started in the luxury supercar business, and when he opened Duke of London, he said, ‘I’m a big fan of Santa Maria, and I’d love to have a Santa Maria in my showroom.’ We looked at each other, me and Angelo, like, ‘that’s cool! Why not?’ We liked the idea and we liked the space!”
He continues: “The funny thing is, whenever you start a new restaurant, you have to start with the space. You usually have a cramped space, with very few square meters, so you put the pizza oven there and this here… now [with Duke of London] we have so much space. It’s like, ‘oh, we’ll just move a car over there and we can put the oven here.’ It was almost too much. We’ve never had so much space in our lives. Plus the space itself is so cool, with all these classic cars.
“We never thought of it as an innovation. We weren’t trying to be cool. For us, it’s just a space to occupy. And then you realise it is actually a really cool thing. We Googled it and found out this might be the first pizzeria in a car showroom in the world. There are pizzerias in markets, in trucks, but never in a car showroom. People love the idea!”
The only thing Chionchio laments about the new restaurant is the timing. It opened on 8 May, in the midst of a nationwide lockdown, and has been offering pizzas for delivery and collection only, Wednesday through Sunday.
Needless to say, this was not how he envisaged the opening. “We were supposed to do a [Santa Maria] 10-year anniversary joint party with the Duke of London opening, by the end of March, but then of course the government announced lockdown. It was like, ‘oh, man!’ Gutting. We organised a party, music, bands. It was a big party. And then — gone! But we’ll do it next year.”
Emerging from lockdown
Life under lockdown has proven financially difficult for just about everyone, not least hospitality businesses. Santa Maria is no different.
“From a profit standpoint, we haven’t been successful during lockdown,” Chionchio explains when asked about the decision to remain open, operating on a takeaway-only basis. “But it wasn’t the point, to make profit. It was more a bid to survive. We’re proud to have not fired anyone. We haven’t changed our structure and we’ve kept our staff. But in order to do that we had to operate and keep the machine going.
“You know, stopping the machine is easy. Close the ovens, close the door, see you whenever. Restarting is the problem. So we didn’t want to take the chance. And to be honest, we made the right choice. I have two or three friends who are operators who don’t know if they are going to reopen. And we couldn’t let that happen. We couldn’t take the chance of not reopening. We had to keep the thing going, even if it meant a loss.”
Because of how Santa Maria has grown so far — through patience, and expanding only when the time is right — and because of the economic situation, the brand has no plans for further openings in unusual settings at the moment.
However, the pandemic is making it think about what could be next. “We have some ideas, but we’re waiting to see how things pan out. The one thing we’ve learned from lockdown is you cannot plan ahead.”
Hot wheels: Santa Maria Pizza at Duke of London
Duke of London is one of the capital’s coolest and quirkiest destinations for classic cars and supercars. Based in a 51,000 square foot warehouse space, it offers sales, restoration, storage, events and detailing.
The site also now houses a Neapolitan-style pizzeria in partnership with Santa Maria Pizzeria, providing an exciting addition to the local area and Ballymore’s The Brentford Project. The pizzeria restaurant is designed to welcome all people, with the owners hoping to attract local foodies, artists, musicians, petrolheads and wanderers.
Once government lockdown restrictions within the food and drink sector are removed, the restaurant will open its doors for guests to dine in the 30-seat restaurant overlooking the classic car showroom from Monday to Saturday, from 4pm to 10pm, and Sunday from midday to 10pm.
A selection of cars currently in the showroom for customers to admire from their dining table include a Jaguar E-Type, Ferrari Dino and McLaren 720S.
Santa Maria uses the same ingredients and cooking method as you would find on the streets of Naples. It also boasts a comprehensive vegan pizza menu, in addition to serving other Italian classics including brushetta pistacchio and mortadella, and aubergines parmigiana.
To mark the launch of the new location, Duke of London CEO, Merlin McCormack, delivered pizza on behalf of Deliveroo in a Lamborghini Murcielago, followed by a second delivery in a 1920s open-top racing Fiat.