Pizza Pilgrims on Italy, street food and the new breed of restaurateur
James and Thom Elliot set off for Italy two years ago, armed with nothing but a Piaggio van and an idea; today they've put their names to a book and two thriving Soho restaurants. We meet the brothers behind Pizza Pilgrims, the unlikely leaders of the capital-wide street food revolution
By Mike Gibson
Published: Tuesday 30th June 2015
IF YOU'RE LIKE me, you'll remember rubbing your thumbs raw playing Super Mario on the Game Boy when you were growing up. So, when I step into Pizza Pilgrims' Kingly Court restaurant, the Mario screensaver on the cash register is the first thing I notice. That, and the enormous illustration of everyone’s favourite pixelated plumber that adorns an entire wall downstairs. It’s like the 1990s in a painting.
As I lead the restaurant's founders outside their Dean Street pizzeria to take photos, the mere mention of the word "shoot" forces them into impressions of the park ranger from Jurassic Park: "Shoot her!" A Simpsons reference follows it – the two state they "basically talk in quotes". As a child of the 1990s myself, they’re not lost on me.
"I think we have a kind of weird fascination with nostalgic stuff," James Elliot, one half of the fraternal duo behind the Pizza Pilgrims, tells me. "Jurassic Park quotes, arcade machines, Super Mario..."
"Over there is a games machine with every arcade game since 1970 on it," his brother Thom proudly declares.
"It's just a fun place," James explains. "None of it’s taking itself seriously." Then, a moment's hesitation before a quick revision: "Apart from the pizza."View on Instagram
That sentence could serve as a microcosm for the Pizza Pilgrims story: the place isn't serious; the food very much is. Case in point: as soon as what Thom describes as a "four-and-a-half-pinter" conversation in a pub lock-in solidified into an idea for a pizza business, the brothers sourced a Piaggio Ape van in Italy and made plans to drive it back to the UK. The van’s top speed (35mph, if you're asking) meant they were forced off the A-roads and through the heart of foodie Italy, where they immersed themselves in the food and the culture. Hence the name.
It's just a fun place. None of it's taking itself seriously – except the pizza
"It’s amazing how the food through Italy changes," James says. "If you start in the south it's hot and there's less wealth, so it's all about fresh produce. It's cucina povera – frugal food – so it's all about fresh vegetables, and abundant local produce. Then as you go north, the people get richer and the weather gets worse, so it's all aged parmigiano-reggiano, Parma ham, and truffles."
They certainly talk like chefs now, but it wasn't always so. Their transition was sometimes gradual, and often lightning-quick. A while before the pilgrimage, James and Thom gave up their jobs – in TV and advertising respectively – and concentrated on nailing down an idea.
It was slow going – they both admit to not knowing a huge amount about the industry before they threw themselves head-first into it – and they alternated between ideas of opening a pub, building pizza ovens, or even abandoning the idea altogether before the epiphany occurred:
"I think we'd resigned ourselves to the fact that we weren't going to do it," James tells me. "Thom was about to do a fast-track course to become a doctor, and then the whole street food thing started happening. Yianni [Papoutsis, co-founder of MEATLiquor] started the Meat Wagon, and we thought 'Wow, there's people going down to a car park in Peckham – it’s probably cost him five grand to set up, and it’s rammed.'"
That's when the Pizza Pilgrims idea crystallised, and the brothers realised that the waves breaking in the London food scene meant you didn’t have to have restaurant experience to start a food business. Hell, you didn’t even need a restaurant.
"The traditional route for opening a restaurant is to go and learn on someone else’s time and money; I think the street food thing led to people just having a punt at it."
What happened next? A rooftop residency in Peckham was enormously well-received, and Conchita, the brothers' notorious van, quickly became a familiar sight on London streets. "It's a horrific term," Thom says, "but there genuinely was a kind of 'organic growth'.
"We started out with the idea of a van going to weddings, bar mitzvahs, even funerals – anyone who would have us. Then the plans changed and we decided we should try to be at a street market somewhere, and have a permanent presence."
That presence, of course, ended up being in Soho. The two made their previous careers there, but more than that, they were guided by the atmosphere. "I don't think we could have done it anywhere other than Soho," James says. "People are so receptive to it here. They love the idea of going and waiting twenty minutes to get a pizza at a stall next to a fruit and veg guy and a sex shop."
Making a Pizza Pilgrims pizza – in pictures
"There's still such an exciting kind of food vibe around Soho," Thom says. "All the most exciting restaurants, the ones that we wanted to go to, were opening in Soho. But when we got there, there was only one other food stall. It’s grown hugely in the last two years."
"London as a city has got really good at accepting the whole street food culture. It’s something they lack in other European cities. London is surprisingly open to people setting up shop and going for it."
I think it’s fair to say that only in London could the Pizza Pilgrims story have played itself out like it has; one that in a little over two years has gone from a half-baked idea formed around a pub table to one of the most enduring success stories of the London street food revolution, encompassing a now-famous food truck, two thriving restaurants and, of course, tentative plans for expansion. Although not without a hint of trepidation:
"We'd much prefer to have three restaurants that we're proud of," Thom explains, "than 100 with average pizza and staff who don’t want to work there."
I think the best way to describe it is a stupid idea that's got out of hand
Whether it ends up being three or 100, this is only the beginning. It's James who ends up providing the most apt summary of their journey: "I think the best way of describing it is a stupid idea that’s got out of hand." He says it off the cuff, but there’s a kind of charming flippancy and an identifiably British sense of self-deprecation to it.
That’s what makes the Pizza Pilgrims story such a worthy one to tell, and why it’s such a great paradigm for the 2010s street food insurgency as a whole: they may be being pitched for TV shows and book deals and scouting for their third restaurant opening in two years, but they’re not the food elite. They represent the new breed of London restaurateur; at the heart of it, they’re just two guys who had a great idea and ran with it.
They spout Jurassic Park references, they grew up watching The Simpsons and they fill their restaurants with arcade games. They’re sarcastic, self-effacing and nonchalant, and they’re living proof that the MTV Generation can shake off listlessness and replace it with invention. It turns out all they need is a van. ■
For more info: pizzapilgrims.co.uk