January January January. Time of detoxes, big plans for improved eating habits and exercise, and general guilt over Christmas consumption. I know I preach moderation but this greedy guts never makes it through the festive season without excessive eating, following by the inevitable lament over my expanded waistline and broken scales.
That’s why every January I do exactly the same as the majority of people and announce that I’m going to cut out the stodge and have a proper good old detox.
For about five minutes.
Or, until Pizza Express invites me to come and check out one of their newly-refurbished places.
And that’s how I ended up, despite having vowed not to touch anything naughty for at least a few weeks, sat in the Pizza Express in Stratford-upon-Avon desperately wondering if I could get away with a ‘healthy’ dinner.
The Stratford branch sits right in the middle of the historic town pretty close to everything you might need, including the RSC, making it a perfect place to pop in for a pre-theatre dinner. I experienced this firsthand after arriving on a Tuesday night to a near-empty restaurant, only to watch a surge of people arrive at about 6pm, filling the entire restaurant.
The restaurant itself has been revamped, and it’s a great mix of historic and modern. The 16th-century building is packed with wooden beams, with a double-height ceiling just in front of the kitchen area, allowing you to look down on it from a mezzanine above if you sit upstairs.
The way the beams divide the room means you can dine in sections that are neither too open and sparse, nor cramped and crowded. There’s continental-style seating out the front (which clearly you wouldn’t touch with a barge pole in January but would probably make a beeline for in summer), along with a lovely lit courtyard that would be great for summer soirees. Oh, and let’s not forget the lovely fire in one corner – perfect for chilly nights like the one I visited on.
Safely ensconced in a corner of my own, I found myself facing my demons as I pored over the menu wondering whether to try to be just a little bit healthy, or to just admit defeat and give in to the temptation of dough, pasta and a lovely carb-laden treat.
In a rare moment of restraint, I managed the first – made easier, I have to say, by the presence of a fair few options that do cater for people who might not want to splurge. For starter I went for a Buffalo Mozzarella & Tomato Salad. Simple, yes, but actually executed far better than I had been prepared for.
A creamy lump of mozzarella in the middle of the plate, surrounded by fresh, sweet cherry tomatoes, drizzled with pesto, olive oil and fresh basil leaves. Like I say, simple. But also winning. The flavours are tried and tested, and the colours look pretty as a picture. My only complaint is that the fresh flavours and equally fresh colours conjured up images of sunnier climes that may have exacerbated my already-present January blues.
For main course, I have to admit I did something that I have been pretty scathing of in the past, opting for one of Pizza Express’s ‘Leggera’ pizzas. If you haven’t heard of these, the Leggera is a normal-sized pizza, but with a hole cut out of it that’s filled with salad instead. Apparently they’ve got less than 600 calories in them, making them a good choice if you’re trying not to wipe out your whole daily allowance in one fell swoop.
Now, despite their virtue, in the past (and Laura from Full to the Brum will attest to this) I have slated the people who go to a pizza joint to only order a pizza that someone else has had the best bit of. I mean, why would you want a pizza that’s got all that gooey yummy middle bit covered in topping removed?
Yet, here I am, ordering one because I really don’t feel like pasta, it’s far too cold for a salad and, well, I like pizza and I want to eat some without feeling bad. And so I took the plunge with a Leggera Pollo ad Astra – topped with chicken, light mozzarella (whatever that is, but I can confirm it’s not noticeably different to normal mozzarella), sweet Peppadew peppers, tomato, Cajun spices, garlic oil and red onion. And let’s not forget the salad in the middle complete with Pizza Express dressing (no, I wasn’t virtuous enough to ask for that to be left off).
Despite my longstanding misgivings, I’ve got to confess I was quite pleased with my choice. For a relatively simple dish that has (come on, be honest) actually basically got half of itself missing, it looked good and a bit more of a 3D treat than the usual flat pizza on a slate you get in pizza places. (Yes, boffins, I know a flat pizza isn’t two-dimensional, but this is the best way I could think of to describe it.)
The dough was thin and crispy, the chicken tender, and the cajun spices and garlic oil a nice contrast to the sweet peppers and onion on top of the pizza. The salad in the middle wasn’t that special, but this isn’t really about that, is it. It’s about being able to tuck into the pizza round the outside while feeling a bit smug and virtuous which, yes, I did.
As meals go, for a weekday treat without the guilt it can usually bring, it was a good choice. I certainly felt full yet without any of the guilt (or bloat) that eating a whole pizza to yourself on a Monday can often bring. Buoyed by my success with starter and main, I decided to quit while the going was good and miss dessert, guaranteeing that I could go home without feeling that nagging guilt that “the only person I had let down was myself” (or some other trite phrase that’s always trotted out by people who seem to find it easy to resist yummy stuff).
Instead, I headed home feeling that, yes, it is possible to go to a pizza joint and have an enjoyable meal without it being a carb-filled calorie-laden fest that will do the equivalent of nuking any attempt at healthy-eating, and leave you with a long-lasting mushroom cloud of guilt.
Of course, deep down I’d have rather filled myself with dough balls coated in glistening, silky garlic butter, then chowed down on a stodgy pasta dish or pizza without its middle missing. But at some point something’s got to give and I’m reassured that despite my all-round love of all things naughty, I’ve still got it in me to say no.
For about five minutes, at least.
I was invited to Pizza Express in Stratford-upon-Avon for a complimentary meal to check out their new look. Oh, and while I am indeed feeling rather smug about my sensible food choices, I have to admit to you (in the interests of transparency) that I couldn’t resist everything and enjoyed a nice glass of red with my meal. Hey, nobody’s perfect!