Nobody ever signed up to be a restaurateur because of their love of carpentry or flat-pack gazebo assembly, but in recent weeks, a flair for such things must have been a positive boon. “If you build it, they will come,” has been the latest mantra for cafe, bar and bistro owners desperate to open their doors.
I’ve watched agog on Instagram as an ambitious timber pergola with a corrugated plastic roof was hammered, glued and hoisted together at Mike’s, a brand new pizza place in Peckham, south-east London. Think Noah’s ark, but with slow-fermented, twice-baked dough festooned with ostentatious toppings and served with cold bottles of Breton cider in the back of a business park/artistic space. Mike’s intends to cope whether it rains, snows or shines.
I went last Thursday lunchtime, in its opening week, dressed for both Club 55 in St Tropez and Captain Scott’s 1910 Terra Nova expedition all at the same time. Well, it pays to be prepared. And, gosh, I wanted lunch, too, and the team at Mike’s (who are also behind Frank’s Cafe, also in Peckham, and the Camberwell Arms) were offering a wooden refuge from all the pain of the past 12 months.
Everything about Mike’s is deceptively down-at-heel. There’s a humble, single-sheet menu written up in a bright, ketchup-red font on a stark, white background. It looks more like a flyer, to be honest, while mini-cab offices have gone bigger on the branding. There are a couple of starters, six or seven pizza options daily, and a beguiling wine list of rossos and biancos that also features five low-intervention, skin-contact choices by the glass.
OK, yes, there are those alarm bells. We’re not in Pizza Express now. You won’t get a glass of warm primitivo with a dishwasher tidemark here. Mike’s is clandestine fancy, even if it is down a back street and opposite a CrossFit gym. The lupe pizza, for example, features sweet, pale pink Tropea onions on a bed of mascarpone, mozzarella and pecorino. It is utterly delicious, almost cake-like, unforgettable and clearly antagonistic, because much of the text on Mike’s website is devoted to placating those who want to argue about what should or should not be on a pizza. “At Mike’s, we’ll be making a style of pizza all of our own,” they say, while serving pineapple on pizza with scotch bonnet pickled onions.
The menu changes frequently, and when I went last week there was a pizza with radicchio, gorgonzola and walnuts that was really quite incredible. Plus a pork belly and chard one. The slices of pizza are served on long, wooden boards, but fear not, plates are available, as are chilli oil, aïoli and anchovy ketchup, if any of those floats your boat. I’d suggest ordering three slices per person (or more, if you are especially hungry or greedy), because this is serious, rather heavy-going pizza that aims to leave you stuffed. The dough has been laboured over, tended to, checked, re-checked and loved dearly. This isn’t Chicago Town or Dr Oetker; no one is hitting the Hut. Mike’s pizza is secretly posh and definitely ever so pleasing. Even the humble gem lettuce side salad, dressed heavily in more Tropea onion, herbs and crumbs, is a delight.
During those long, cooped-up March days, as I geared up for Mike’s, I read and re-read the menu, drooling unattractively over their promise to make me suppli. This is a sort of Italian croquette, or an arancino on steroids, that you rarely see on British menus, which is a shame, because it’s perfect with a cold glass of vermouth and soda in the spring sunshine. The hot, deep-fried bullets served at Mike’s are stuffed with scamorza, fregola and saffron and formed into delicate balls. This is a dish that’s a strong example of why we bother to put on pants with zips and leave the house to eat out at all: because life is simply too short to make your own supplì. Not that it’s an insurmountable task, but I’ve seen Mike’s chef Gabriel Bonci, who once had his own pizza restaurant in Rome, and I’ve tasted his crumbly, oozing handiwork, and here is a man who can raise the status of “crunchy, cheesy, fried thing” into a sort of noble art. Order at least six supplì. In fact, I’d consider even going for these alone and have them with a side of shaved grezzina courgette with a blood orange and mint dressing.
For pudding, we shared a structureless bowl of mascarpone with pistachios and rhubarb, which felt a bit like nursery food, but I wasn’t complaining. I am in the marketplace to be treated like a cosseted child in numerous establishments for the remainder of 2021, being spoonfed delightful, made-from-scratch morsels by people, nay, angels, who have made it their actual career to make members of the public happier. I’ve been in the house for too long. It’s time to test the limitations of my waistband.