Review: Theo’s Pizzeria, Camberwell SE5
January 24, 2016
A slice of Naples in Camberwell, dishing up crowd-pleaser pizza at affordable prices – think bufala without the bill.
Theo’s is a functional-looking but classy Neapolitan-style pizzeria with a light, bright interior, sandwiched between the Hill bakery and the Hermit’s Cave pub on Grove Lane.
A big glass front displays locals packing out the bar area where the wood-fired oven squats, and a rather spartan, whitewashed dining area. There’s also a connecting room with a communal table overlooking a patio.
Customers ranged from whist-playing families (yes, really – Camberwell Grove is round the corner, after all), to mothers with babes-in-arms, to young couples for whom pizza is effectively foreplay. As it always has been – my first date was in a Pizza Hut, but then I lived in the arse-end of England then. If I lived in Camberwell, I’d come here for the same reasons – it’s cheap, unpretentious and fast enough to box up, settle up and pretend you’ve got an early start the next morning.
To drink, we had the ubiquitous Kernel beer in a frosted glass and a glass of Nero d’Avola, accompanied by chili-doused olives. The chili oil and chili flakes on each table too suggested a leaning towards gutsy southern Italian cooking.
We started with good olives with a kick and bombetta. My Italian dictionary tells me this means ‘bowler hat’, and indeed there’s something quintessentially English about this late night, to-hell-with-it meat and cheese confection. But it’s actually a Pugliese peasant speciality – nuggets of fatty pork shoulder stuffed with provolone cheese and wrapped in pancetta, grilled and drenched in salsa verde. Superb. I could have eaten a gross of them and sent the bill to my cardiologist.
We sampled three pizzas. The wood-fired oven was hot enough to render the crusts of all three swollen, puffy and bubbling with the odd large black buboe. This, I hasten to add, is a good thing. There’s a reason that acne sufferers are dubbed ‘pizza faces’ – these pies provide it, not the shamefully pallid, flat, unblemished crusts of other let-them-be-nameless outlets.
The crust shouldn’t be the discardable handle of a pizza, to be apologetically returned to your waiter, but the best bit. Look at the refuse on your neighbour’s plate when you dine in Pizza Express – it’s all crust. We were commanded to eat our crusts as children, but refused because (with apologies to any aristocrats reading), we were brought up on Mother’s Pride. Here, the edges are quite rightly the centrepiece – crisp but chewy, dense but moreish.
The crust had a run for its lira though, vying for top spot with the centre, which in Neapolitan style was rolled thinner than the edges and had been transformed by intense heat into a soupy puddle of whey, sauce and oil. Knife and fork required.
First up was an anchovy pizza, a Napoletana in all but name, thick with capers and olives and delicious enough to jump in a knife fight for. A case of killing for Campania.
This was followed by a Napoli salami pizza – the base great but the salami a little pedestrian. Maybe when it comes to meat on a pizza, I’m still in awe of Franco Manca’s dry and semi-dry chorizo combination. It was a little light on the chili too, but then there was a vat of chili oil on the table to compensate.
Finally a special, a pizza fiocco, without tomato, and loaded with ham, cheese, extra mushroom in our case – and mashed potato. Not at all the garbage pail method of garnishing a pizza, our waiter thoroughly convinced us this was a not unusual combination in Campania, although it did taste a little strange at first. But it wasn’t the carb overload you might expect, (and what’s not to like about mashed potato after all?) and was an intensely savoury wintry treat.
A margherita comes in at just £5.50, and other pizzas from £7-10 so you can eat and drink well for around a tenner. No wonder the locals are loving it.
Sourcing is both authentic and local – tomatoes are San Marzano, the mozzarella is sourced from Italy (buffalo are thin on the ground in south London), but the nduja (a spreadable spicy sausage I would brush my teeth with if I could) is the same home-made one that appears on the menu at the Camberwell Arms a hundred yards up the street. Other ingredients come in from Bermondsey.
Theo’s also serves panuozzi at lunchtime, pizza dough cut into sandwich pockets and filled with meat, cheese or whatever takes your fancy. A welcome arrival in Camberwell, if locals’ arteries might not be better off, their bank balances will be.
2 Grove Lane, SE5 8SY
020 3026 4224