“Did you put any flour on that dough?”
“Eeeeeeeeeerm….would you believe me if I said yes?”
I have, with varying degrees of success and failure, been making pizzas at home for over three years now. The full gamut has been run; Neapolitans of various hydrations, chunky Sicilian bois, Roman Al Taglios and crispy, blistered New Yorkers. I’ve had more dough in my fridge than a high level cocaine trafficker and not once, in all those attempts at perfectly recreating the finest pizzas I’ve ever pushed into my mouth, from New York to Naples and back to Manchester, have I ever forgot to flour the fucking dough before pushing it out.
Then again, I have never undertaken this process in an actual fully functioning, professional kitchen while the head pizzaiolo oversees every stretch, prod and saucing. Frank Pinello, Marc Vetri or Anthony Falco are yet to personally judge one of the margheritas or pepperoni squares I’ve produced off the back of their recipes. Yet here I stand, at the prep bench of the new Nell’s Pizza, mishandling 800g of hyperactive flour, water, yeast, olive oil and salt while the main man, Jonny Heyes, grimaces at my most rookie of fucking errors.
The reason I find myself on the other side of the counter on this shockingly sky blue Thursday afternoon is to not only enjoy a tour of the new Nell’s location, within the burgeoning red brick and concrete garden neighbourhood of Kampus, but to be given a hands on education of what exactly goes into transforming a small selection of basic store cupboard ingredients into, in this writer’s humble opinion, the best pizza in Manchester.
Fully bedecked in official Nell’s regalia – crisp white tee, navy apron and matching baseball cap which, thankfully, rests more than comfortably on my meatball of a dome – I look the part for an afternoon of discovery, mentorship and, unfortunately, one instance of almost concussing a co-worker with a pizza peel.
I won’t lie, as Jonny calls us over to his prep bench, ingredients all laid out in front of a table top dough mixer, there is the undeniable potential of a Mr. Miyagi – Daniel LaRusso/Mickey Goldmill – Rocky Balboa dynamic building. Only involving the mixing, pushing and topping of pizza dough and not catching flies with chopsticks or punching the ever loving shite out of a side of beef. That this potential is rapidly obliterated by a litany of cack handed errors on my part only further serves to intensify the drama of us reaching our final destination of removing an inch perfect, almost two foot wide disc of Manchester made New York majesty from the top deck of the colossal Nell’s oven. Probably. I dunno, I was too busy playing out the entire afternoon in montage form in my head the entire time.
Anyway, weird cinematic fantasies aside, what’s obvious when Jonny begins directing us through the embryonic steps of the dough making process is just how much care, craft and nuance goes into Nell’s product. The temperature of the secretive flour blend is taken, then measured against the temperature of the air in the kitchen to decide how warm the water should be. Jonny insists that absolutely nothing is eyeballed and must be measured out with utmost precision. A soul crushing blow to my usual ‘that’ll do’ attitude.
Everything but the salt is added to the mixer, which then begins to put its hooks to work, binding together the gluteny goodness and opening up all those precious air pockets. When Jonny adjudges the mass to be suitably solid, he leaves it to rest and informs us we have some focaccia to attend to. Fucking Yes.
What I must mention at this point is that the mixer used for our little afternoon stint in the Nell’s Kampus kitchen is by no means what will be put through it’s paces come opening day. That will be a job for the behemoth that lies in wait behind us, which is comfortably gargantuan enough to bathe a fucking silverback gorilla in. Jonny confesses that he is yet to use it and, in all fairness, it’s hard to blame him for being pensive, given this fucking thing looks like it could transform into one of Optimus Prime’s mates at a moment’s notice.
And it’s not only the mixer that has been seemingly gassed full of steroids, either. The triple decker oven, procured from ‘the Swedish Pizza Mafia’ according to Jonny, is about the same size as some of the one bedroom flats available in Kampus. This isn’t just an oven, it’s a fucking mothership. You could slide a dozen pizzas in there and still have enough room for a game of 5-a-side. This thing is monstrous and only emphasises just how big the scale of Nell’s new operations are.
The confidence in the product and the demand for it since Nell’s initially launched as a pop up inside Common at the beginning of 2020 is there for all to see in their new digs. The restaurant and bar area is a sprawling buzz of Brooklyn pizzeria, Copenhagen infused comfort and ’70s shopping centre concrete and colour. Never mind about swinging a cat, there’s enough space in here to helicopter a Bengal tiger around your head. Not that you’d want to, like. There’s a Photo Booth leading towards the pass and slice bar and, even on a pre-opening afternoon, it’s easy to visualise this spot being packed to the rafters night after night. Who wouldn’t want to spend a couple of hours around a tableful of mates as you all take down 22 inches of immaculately prepared dough, marinara sauce, fior di latte and Cobble Lane pepperoni? Or maybe some of the aforementioned, newly added focaccia that has made it’s way onto the menu here.
Well, back to the kitchen and, if any potential customers could witness the battering I’m giving a square of wet dough, they actually might have more than a few reservations. As Jonny effortlessly dimples his focaccia with uniform regulation, I prod and poke a scatterbrained atrocity of wounds into my mixture, which leaves the dough looking like someone gave a mouse a gram of speed and a miniature pogo stick and let them go fucking ballistic.
“Bloody hell, you REALLY got into that corner, there” reviews Jonny, observing my over enthusiastic handiwork. But this isn’t the only sheepish moment I will endure. I am then informed to ‘tease’ the olive oil across my blank canvas, which I take as an instruction to do that little chef flourish of half obscuring the oil’s exit from my bottle with my thumb, so as to generate a performative drizzle of extra virgin into the pan.
Big fucking mistake.
“What’s that?! We’re not having any Jamie Oliver nonsense in here” exclaims Jonny, horrified. “Tease it out means lash a load on there. Don’t be shy.”
Kill me now. Seriously. Kill me stone dead and throw me in that big fucking oven and then into that mixer.
A crumbling of oregano is scattered atop the dough with, thankfully, minimal fuss or error and into the top deck they go. The oregano, by the way, is an on-the-day alternative to the usual rosemary that will be used.
We peek inside to see the two pans bubbling and rising as they bake. The aroma of freshly, expertly baked bread wafting our way like a big, warm Italian tidal wave. It’s unerringly comforting and briefly makes me forget my horror show of an oil pour.
As our first doughs heat up, Jonny treats us to one he made earlier, a bit like Blue Peter, only with Mediterranean baked goods instead of a Tracey Island made out of old cornflakes boxes.
The focaccia is sliced into identikit fingers, all open crumb invites to dip into pots of freshly prepared marinara and chilli dipping sauces. As an appetiser, it’s an extraordinary triumph in simplicity. Fantastic bread combined with an abundance of flavour from the sauces. Within half a bite I’m picturing enjoying a portion of these with a pint and a big, daft smile on my face. Which is what every great dining experience should be, to be honest.
Attention then turns to our focaccias from earlier and, while Jonny’s may be the neater effort, my own avant garde creation makes for a more rustically charming result, it has to be said. I privately chalk that up as a personal victory for myself and revenge for being compared to Jamie Oliver and make my way to the business end of the afternoon – The 22 inch New Yorker.
So, yeah, alright, upon first attempt I MAY have forgotten to flour the dough upon plopping it onto the prep bench. Unforgivable and all that, alright, let’s move on. I was over eager and basking in the glow of a focaccia prep that was, quite frankly, the work of a bread based prodigy.
Second time lucky, my 800g newborn is floured appropriately and so the method of stretching it out to size begins. I was dreading this.
Jonny’s demonstration was the work of an accomplished sensei. Going back to my earlier Mr. Miyagi analogy, this is the bit where he catches the fly with the chopsticks. Or like that doctored YouTube video of Ronaldinho casually knocking a football repeatedly against the crossbar from the edge of the box. It looks SO easy, but when it comes down to it, this is a practice that requires steady and accurate hands. I feel doomed.
Laughing so I won’t cry I just about manage to push out the dough a fair amount into a decent looking circle. Then comes the slap. Not Jonny delivering one to my chops for disgracing his kitchen with my mere presence (I would 100% not have blamed him for that, either) but slapping my dough between my hands (grow up) until the elasticity of the base eases it’s way into the appropriate size. Upon seeing that no holes have appeared and the crust is reasonably even, the relief waves over me. That was, and I’m not being dramatic, my Everest. Many a home cooked effort has been hurled in the bin followed by a tirade of swear words upon the stretching out going horrendously south. But no emotional breakdowns are necessary, here. Instead of taking a bottle of red wine up to the shower, I’m sliding my almost two foot masterpiece down the bench to be sauced up.
I spiral a ladle and a half of house Marinara sauce over the disc of dough, which earns me a ‘not bad’ from Jonny and my first tear is almost shed at hearing those words. Much like how Alex Ferguson’s former players will tell you how him saying ‘well done’ to them would be enough to make them run through a brick wall, ‘not bad’ is the level I will always aspire to reach at any task. No one likes a show off, do they?
Wind fully in my sails, I scatter across grated mozzarella and then a further flourish of fior di latte with all the confidence and pizzaz of a bloke who’s been in this game for 25 years. Jonny then demonstrates how to effectively work the peel in the oven, showing me his rotation skills. This is not another ‘not bad’ moment, but rather an ‘absolutely no fucking good’ endeavour, which finishes with me finally landing my pie towards the back of the middle deck and, instead of politely acknowledging Jonny’s assistance, I decide now will be the perfect time to showcase some ill advised kung fu manoeuvres, spinning all five feet of the peel around, blissfully unaware that Beck, who has been heroically filming and photographing the entire experience like a champ, is only four feet away from me. My audition for any future reimagining of ‘Enter The Dragon’ immediately goes horrendously wrong and a hard working colleague is left with the wrong end of a pizza peel bouncing off her temple.
A myriad of terrified apologies (and lots of mockery aimed in my direction) later and out comes the pie, the crust beautifully leoparded and bubbled, crimson red marinara punctuated with golden mozz. If I were not in the company of others, I would have probably christened her with a full name and everything, but instead I must now put my severely lacking geometry skills to the test and slice my pie into eight equal triangles.
Narrator: He did not slice the pie into eight equal triangles.
“Now, if you were to receive this slice and the person you were with received THIS slice, would you be happy?” queries Jonny, perplexed at just how badly I’ve judged the carving up of my creation. There’s no two ways around it, one slice is your postcard New York slice – It will overflow a paper plate without any issue. The slice next to it, however, looks like it’s lost little brother. Imagine Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito in ‘Twins’ and you’re on the right lines.
Fortunately, no one is being served this pie other than the four of us currently standing around it and there’s enough correctly sized slices to go around.
It’s so easy to take the quality of Nell’s pizza for granted and our taste test only further reaffirms that point. The dough is crisp without being brittle, offering exactly the right amount of chew, with the precise amount of fresh baked flavour coursing through it that only accentuates the immaculately sourced toppings above. There are no gimmicks, only quality. One bite and the words of world’s handsomest pizzaiolo, Lucali legend and Brooklyn King Mark Iacono spring straight to mind, when appearing on David Chang’s much acclaimed ‘Ugly Delicious’.
“Italians invented pizza. Italian Americans perfected it.”
This New York style is undefeated. Neapolitans may have the history and the old world romance behind them, and there is no denying that much of the best pizza in the world can still be found while wandering the back streets of Naples (and in many Neapolitan based joints across the globe), but the evolution away from soupy slices towards a foldable, by-the-slice, ubiquitous street food is one of the rare instances where America has actually managed to improve something rather than, y’know, making it a hundred times fucking worse.
Jonny surmises that his slice is a little sauce heavy, but this is clearly just his way of coyly expressing how it is in fact the work of a seminal culinary artist who’s stylistic temperament knows no bounds. Or he’s politely telling me to leave his kitchen and never, ever return.
All that’s left to do now is remove the earlier prepared dough from the mixer, a task that is left to me and the two clumsy shovels that masquerade as a pair of hands. Fortunately the mix is removed without incident and is stored away for what will be a 48 hour prove before it blossoms into another masterpiece.
That Nell’s is already flying solo away from Common after a little over a year of pandemic ridden panic and mayhem is proof of how beloved an institution it has already become in Manchester. This week it’s been nigh on impossible to scroll through insta feeds and stories without stumbling across at least half a dozen posts at a time from early visitors, deliriously chomping through their way through arm length slices. This is a pizzeria that is going beyond just being somewhere to get a great slice and is now cultivating it’s own culture, much like the classic establishments it was influenced by in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
I depart with three cling filmed sliced of Margherita, cradling them like a proud parent while eagerly planning a multitude of visits over the coming months; Working lunches with a couple of slices, family dinners, boozy Christmas jaunts, you name it, it’s happening here for the foreseeable and, given the anticipation building around this week’s opening, I’m supremely confident that I am not alone in hatching such plans.