One of the greatest joys for me when I travel solo is discovering the food and drink of the region I am visiting. When Janice mentioned that she was going to be traveling to London, I immediately exclaimed “You’ve got to try this pizza!”
Yes, pizza. Not fish and chips, not Cornish pasties, not Gordon Ramsay’s $200 prix fixe. Pizza. In a tiny, obscure, atmospherically-challenged spot in Brixton Market.
Before I set out on a trip, I spend hours – no, make that days – researching the local cuisine. I scour travel sites, message boards, food blogs and local publications in search of new taste experiences. I don’t recall where I first heard about Franco Manca, but with a 2-day stopover in London looming, I was determined that one of their Neapolitan wood-burning stone oven-baked pizzas would be mine.
It Seemed Like a Simple Enough Plan…
…grab the review; hop on the tube; walk to the restaurant; eat. I knew it was near Brixton station – how hard could it be?
After walking around the area for half an hour, it seemed more difficult than I had anticipated. Wandering past displays of knockoff CDs, overripe mangoes and reeking fish in the blistering heat, I began to wonder if I had made a mistake. Had I checked the dates of the reviews? Could the restaurant have moved? Wouldn’t it be easier to just grab a seat in a pub, order a tall, cool Pimm’s and call it a day?
Short of donning a Hawaiian print shirt and stringing a camera around my neck, I could not have stood out as a tourist more. I was hot and hungry, confused and frustrated. Suddenly I spied a smiling man in a reflective vest. Aha, I thought – a city employee. Surely he will know where I can find my pizza. As I approached him, still clutching my now useless directions, he pointed at me and said “Let me guess…you’re looking for the pizza place? You’ll never find it. I’ll take you there.” I instantly fell in love with this clearly wise man.
He walked me back through the market, cheerfully greeting market sellers and shop owners along the way. This market that had seemed seedy and smelly on my way down now seemed colorful and alive on the way back up!
I Found Pizza Heaven – and Other Solo Travelers
From that point on, it was a beautiful day, from the lovely staff to the organic lemonade to the incredible pizza. The sourdough crust, made from organic Italian flour which had risen for 20 hours and was then topped and quickly baked in a 930 degree oven, was a heavenly, elastic combination of soft and crispy. I ordered mine with sausage and cheese, and drizzled it with their fragrant oil.
Not just any cheese, mind you – a cheesemaker was brought in from Sorrento to train a local in their art of mozzarella making. Not just any sausage either, but organic cured chorizo from Brindisa. And not just any oil, but organic olive oil from Sicily, infused with herbs, chilis and garlic. I was in pizza heaven.
As I glanced around the tiny restaurant I realized I was not alone – there were other solo diners photographing their food, studying maps while they dined. I even listened to an Australian traveler tell the owner a story virtually identical to mine.
In the process of researching this post, it became clear that many, many traveling food lovers and locals alike have since caught on to the wonder of Franco Manca. And in the years since I wrote this post, Franco Manca has expanded to include more than 40 locations around London and beyond. No matter – on that hot summer day in London, in the depths of Brixton market, I discovered the most delicious pizza of my life…and came home with a great travel story.