Zia Lucia (£)
157 Holloway Road, N7 8LX
Summary: Dining here is like being wrapped in the arms of Auntie Lucia herself. Zia Lucia serves up innovative and tasty pizza to savvy pizza lovers in North London. What the pizza toppings lack in consistency is made up for with one of the best dough bases in London (in multiple varieties), flavoursome base sauces, and an infectiously convivial, warm atmosphere which transports you to Italy. One of my favourite pizza places right now, and one of the few places I prefer to dine in than take out. Verdict: 9/10
Value for money: 9/10
Practical details: this place is almost always busy – even on a Wednesday night (personal experience), and they take reservations for groups of more than 6. If you don’t have a reservation, be prepared for a wait. However, their website says that if you have a special occasion and need a reservation, just get in touch and ask. Also, they offer a gluten-free base for coeliacs, and will wear gloves when preparing vegetarian pizzas – again, just ask. Average price per person if having starters, main, and dessert, with a drink: about £20. You could have a pizza and drink for about £13.
P.S. scroll down for a top tip if dining in 🙂
Zia Lucia opened just over a year ago on an unassuming stretch of Holloway Road, somewhere between Highbury and Islington and Holloway Road stations. Founded by two Italians living in London, it offers traditional Italian pizza, cooked to charred perfection in the giant wood fired oven, appropriately named Dante. More than that, and a first for London, at Zia Lucia you can take your pick from four different types of dough base: traditional, wholemeal, vegetable charcoal, and gluten-free (the last one is kept separately from the other doughs and handled with gloves). These are all slow-fermented for 48 hours, producing a light, airy base which, the restaurant claims, is easier to digest. All the better to enjoy a whole pizza or two.
My first experience there was an extremely enjoyable one (see post here), and I loved that as a solo diner I felt perfectly at home and part of the scene in a packed, rather boisterous restaurant. I’ve since been back a couple of times, and think I will probably make my way through the entire menu in future visits, but here is my review based on what I have seen and eaten so far…
It’s not often I start with atmosphere, but this is a significant part of what makes dining here so enjoyable. It’s is the first thing that hits you and then wraps itself around you as you walk in. Zia Lucia is almost hectically busy, and it is not uncommon to see a crowd outside and inside the restaurant, cramping up the doorway and filling what little standing space exists by the door. There are customers waiting for tables, customers waiting for takeaway, Deliveroo drivers waiting for their orders, and the staff are trying to manage that whilst serve already seated customers. That, plus the warmth of the decor and the energy emanating from the pizza ‘bar’ and oven which dominates the restaurant, all contributes to a wonderfully warm atmosphere.
Actually, that’s only the lesser half of it. The main source of the conviviality is the management and staff, who are all friendly and the right amount of chatty. The general manager is striking as a trim, bald man who emits a quiet authority, and, I noticed, keeps everything on the right side of controlled chaos. He somehow manages to quality assure almost every pizza, whilst making sure waiting customers are seated, seated customers are attended to, and that staff are doing what they are meant to. He will joke with the staff and include you in the joke without being a buffoon, and I admired how on one very busy Saturday evening he disappeared into a side room, appeared soon after in the pizzaiolo’s uniform of white T-shirt, put on an apron, and got busy with the other pizzaiolos to keep up with the orders.
So here’s my top tip: if you’re dining solo, or maybe if you’re a pair, ask to sit at the bar, or take up the offer if they make it. It really is the best seat in the house, from where you have a prime view of the pizzaiolos in action – and it is fascinating viewing – and you are at the heart of the energy which fills the restaurant, with the manager and waiting staff playfully calling out ‘ragazzi!’ to the pizzaiolos to get their attention; the pizzaiolos in their camaraderie as they practise their art shoulder to shoulder, occasionally stopping for a swig of water; and the endless line of crisp, steaming pizzas with billowing crusts being lifted out of the oven and waiting on a row of plates and boxes before they are swiftly taken to their rightful owner. I think it was being part of that spirit that made me fall in love with this place before I even tasted the pizza. Eating alone, I happily and unwittingly got lost in the activity in front of me, and could easily imagine myself in Naples. Nevertheless, food was on my mind – it was being made in front of me, after all – so testing the pizzas was crucial…
There is a variety of fairly traditional starters on the menu. None of them screamed out at me as particularly unusual, but when I came on a repeat visit with my brother I tried the bruschetta with chopped tomato and fresh basil (£4), and the roasted aubergine, courgettes, and peppers (£5):
Honest verdict is that neither of these were particularly inspiring. Both were pretty plain and needed additional seasoning/flavouring: the bruschetta could have done with some basil oil, and perhaps some garlic; the roasted vegetables needed some balsamic and more seasoning. My ogling eye did spot some of the focaccia on other tables which looked quite good (it’s made from the same dough as the bases, so you can get in charcoal, wholemeal etc), but otherwise I’m OK to pass on the starters in future. I did feel pretty virtuous after getting some of my 5-a-day, though, which set me up nicely for the pizza…
The pizzas – and that charcoal base…
The pizza menu is creative, with an innovative combination of toppings to suit meat eaters, vegetarians, and even vegans. That, plus the choice of four different bases, means that you could quite feasibly try a different pizza every week there for a year. Tempting prospect.
The menu includes the ‘Vegana’, a vegan pizza with butternut squash cream base, the ‘Andrea Pirli’, a gorgonzola and apple creation, to the highly popular ‘Arianna’, with pecorino, sausage, taleggio, goats cheese, truffle honey, and mozzarella. They will also have weekly specials, which have included calzone, burrata-topped pizza, and white pizzas.
Note (and small gripe): they do not generally offer substitutions on the menu, even if you want to sub a meat item for a veg one, which is a little disappointing. If you do make changes, they will say you have to pay for the substituted ingredient. However, when I asked the manager directly (just by chance, not as a complaint) about a meat-free version of the ‘Arianna’ (see below), he was happy to accommodate the request, no questions asked. It would be great if they could offer substitutions (especially meat for veg toppings) as a standard policy.
That charcoal base…
This is the first pizzeria I’ve come across which offers a vegetable charcoal dough base, and I was intrigued. I was also a little sceptical: I have tried a charcoal pizza slice from a takeaway ‘healthy’ food counter in Selfridges in the past, and it was hard, tasteless and very disappointing. Zia Lucia explain that their charcoal base is made from wood and vegetable matter that is oxidized at very high temperatures, before being treated. It comes in the form of black flour from Italy which already contains the charcoal, which they then mix with their regular flour to make their unique base. It is a clever USP, being highly Instagrammable and eliciting curiosity. Nevertheless, I kept my expectations low…
On my first visit, I ordered a Margherita with charcoal base (£8.90 with the speciality base). I was waiting for over 30 minutes for it (it was a busy Saturday evening), but eventually I saw it being lifted out of the oven and popped on a plate which found its way to me in seconds, so it was still bubbling as it arrived…
I took a tentative bite…and it was light, airy, and totally delicious. The base was unbelievably fluffy, and the tomato sauce beautifully flavoursome. I would have loved some more cheese on the pizza, but the rest of it was so good I didn’t miss it too much.
The vegetarian version of the Arianna (£12.40 with the charcoal base), subbing out the sausage for olives, sounded like a great pizza in the making, with its combination of toppings…
However, it didn’t quite deliver. Although I loved the idea of a white pizza with truffle and honey, the toppings were a little unbalanced for me: the large chunks of pecorino clogged the pizza and made it too rich alongside the other toppings, which made it quite heavy overall. When I got a bite of simple taleggio, honey and truffle oil, it was delicious; otherwise it was a bit of an effort to work through (note that the original meat version of this might rebalance the flavours and it could work differently, although I can’t say for sure).
Having observed the pizzaiolos as they make the pizza (and it’s magnetic viewing), I get the feeling that pizzas at Zia Lucia are like a pair of Levi’s: no two pizzas (of the same name) are ever the same. Sometimes the cheese is evenly distributed over the pizza, sometimes it’s not; sometimes there’s a generous amount of cheese, sometimes it’s a little light; sometimes the toppings are plentiful, sometimes they’re a little light. Some people might like more consistency, others might not mind the small gamble they take when they order. I am pretty sure that if I were to order the Arianna again, I would get a pizza with a different balance of toppings.
On the more adventurous side of the menu is the Andrea Pirlo, a vegetarian pizza with apple, gorgonzola, olive sauce, mozzarella, and truffle. Now a die-hard fan, of course I had it on a charcoal base:
It was absolutely delicious! Even my sceptical brother was surprised by how well the unusual flavours worked together: the sweetness of the apple was not overwhelming, and countered by the mild gorgonzola, olive sauce, and subtle amount of truffle. I really enjoyed this one, even though my crust was slightly too charred on this occasion.
My brother ordered the traditional Napoli, which he said was good enough to order again:
Overall, the pizzas are the star of the show here, and the base is what makes it a winner. It’s light, airy, fluffy, and together with the innovative combination of flavours makes the pizza unique and stand apart from its competitors.
Oh yes, dessert. The dessert menu is limited, but it doesn’t matter because you only need one thing on it: the Tiramisu. The (Italian) waitress told me that this was the real deal, made the proper way according to a traditional Italian recipe. She had tried tiramisus elsewhere in London, but none of them were like this. I needed little convincing, even though I would normally pass on Tiramisu.
It looked impressive, more custardy than I’m used to seeing (because I obviously haven’t had the proper version), and tasted as good as it looked. Creamy, coffee-soaked (with some Marsala as well, I’m guessing), light – it was absolutely delicious. And if you’re stuffed, it’s a generous portion (and reasonably priced at £4), so you’re able to share (or eat it all yourself, which I easily could have done). It was a perfect end to the meal.
The pizzas are unique, due to the creative toppings and the excellent bases, and stand apart from other pizzerias. You could forgive the inconsistency in how the same pizza might turn out on any given visit, or you might wish that you knew exactly what you would be getting when you order your favourite. For me, the overall atmosphere, quality of service, generally above-average and innovative pizzas are a winning combination, and I am happy to visit this otherwise dreary part of Holloway Road to step into this small piece of of Italy for a warm welcome and lovely meal.