Kramer, the unconventional-minded character from Seinfeld, in a particularly memorable episode, floated the idea of starting a pizza joint where customers make their own 'pizza pie'. In his typically over-ambitious scenario you would do everything, from making the dough to cooking it in the oven. Imagine having your pizza exactly the way you want it, but someone else does all the work? In 2008, that concept became a reality in the US when Scott and Ally Svenson, co-founders of Seattle Coffee Company, Starbucks and Carluccio's, created MOD Pizza, offering made-to-order, artisan-style pizzas and salads, the difference being that they let customers choose whatever they like from a huge list of toppings, for a set price of £7.47. I was given the opportunity to see how it works - or more importantly, tastes - last week, a few days after MOD Pizza opened their third UK restaurant at the Intu Metrocentre in Gateshead, which is fairly local to me. I love good pizza and was excited at the idea of being able to pick my own toppings from a massive selection, so I made the trek over the River Tyne.
At its location on the upper level in the Qube, I was greeted by a friendly host who explained how everything works. There's a menu of classics for pizza and salads for anyone who is happy to let someone else do the choosing. But of course I was there to call the shots! So with daughter in tow I made my way over to the open kitchen area with the counter that displayed the great spread of toppings, and I kind of went nuts. I was not strategic at all, asking for any item that struck my fancy - I arrived good and hungry - and watched it all pile onto the base of fresh-pressed dough and red sauce until I had embarrassed myself. The very lovely Lee was running the show that night and was happy to oblige, suggesting different cheeses, which I almost forgot while caught up in my topping picking frenzy, and I wound up with a generous sprinkling of asiago, blue cheese, and nice big shavings of parmesan. Into the 300 degrees Celsius oven went my pizza. My daughter actually had a plan for her pizza and created her version of Hawaiian - ham, pineapple and black olives with mozzarella and some parmesan. We got our self-serve refillable drinks and chose to sit at one of the big red booths near the front. There are other seating areas with tables and chairs or you can perch yourself on a stool and eat at one of their wood and concrete counters (their interior is pretty cool).
In a few short minutes I heard my name called and I went up to fetch our pies. They looked good. We sliced them up with the pizza cutter and with my first bite I focused on the two things that I think are the most important features of a pizza - the dough and sauce. If either isn't quite right, it doesn't matter what's on top. I was thrilled to find that the base was not too thin and definitely not too thick, which is my worst pizza nightmare. The crust is light and crispy and so nice that after devouring my entire pie I ate the single one remaining on my daughter's plate, left because she was just too full. And she never eats the crust. And a further testament to MOD getting their dough recipe spot on is that fact that I was able to load it down with tons of toppings, yet when I picked up each slice it wasn't collapsing under the weight of my gluttony. (I've actually seen a pizza so thin and limp that it fell apart just from having olive oil drizzled on, which was kind of hilarious because it dropped in pieces onto the poor guy's face.) And as for the sauce...I don't have a favourite delivery pizza chain because all of their sauces taste cheap. They either have no flavour or they have an artificial sweet taste to them which always leaves me with regrets. MOD's tomato sauce was just right.
And an unbelievable thing happened while we were eating. As Lee popped by to see how we were doing, the man that was sitting behind us turned around to tell him that this was the best pizza he's had in his 20 years of living in the UK. I detected a New York accent which he confirmed, and I commented that there was no higher praise than to hear that from a New Yorker who hails from the city with hands-down the best pizza in the world. So...wow!
MOD Pizza also offers gluten-free dough and options for vegans including dairy-free cheese.
It's worth noting that MOD Pizza is a very cheerful environment with attentive staff, which I greatly appreciate because I don't come across it as often as I'd like. That counts and they appear to know it. I'll be back and next time I'll try something completely different, I may go veggie!
Other MOD Pizza locations in the UK are in Leeds and Brighton, with Leicester Square, London opening on 8th December and Market Square, Nottingham on 14th December.
My pizza, a mishmash of spontaneous choices which worked out just fine. But next time I'd like to survey the options and get a bit creative. Do a bit more around that zingy blue cheese....
We almost forgot to try the handspun milkshakes but got one chocolate to share. They are THICK, just as they should be.