IS the pizza passé? Last week, Pizza Express was revealed to be £1.2bn in debt and on the brink of collapse, sandwiched between the expectations of its Chinese owners and a decline in the “casual dining market” as people seek out new, exciting tastes rather than the time-honoured bread, tomato sauce and cheese combination.

Pizza Express has been a staple of the high street since it was formed in 1965 – it has restaurants in Darlington, Northallerton, Durham and Teesside Park – but reports at the weekend suggest it will have to close about 40 per cent of its outlets.

There has been an outpouring of grief from pizza fans who have suggested, in all seriousness, that an incoming Labour government should nationalise the chain to save it – “the people’s pizza”.

On Saturday night in Darlington, the Pizza Express in Skinnergate was on the wrong side of half full. Most of those dining with us were family groups, with little children in paper hats scribbling on colouring sheets.

The Darlington restaurant is a large, echoey building – formerly the Green Tree Café many decades ago – with an entrance wall of flashing lights and the repetitive basslines of half-heard songs cutting through the customers’ hubbub. It seems not to have changed since our last visit about 15 years ago.

The reason we haven’t been back sooner is that when we have a rare Saturday evening together they are spent slumped on the sofa in front of Strictly Come Dancing or the X-Factor with a takeaway pizza.

It was, then, quite an eye-opener to see such a varied and inventive menu at Pizza Express.

We indulged ourselves with a couple of starters. Pizza Express’ best seller is dough balls with garlic bread (£3.95) which is inexplicable as they are desperately unimaginative – just balls of dough with butter – but children seem to adore them.

We also had a plate of stonkingly hot rosemary and garlic flatbreads with houmous (£4.95). The rosemary wasn’t particularly noticeable, but Petra, my wife, who regards herself as a houmous connoisseur, was very impressed.

I had a baked garlic mushroom (£5.95), which is apparently new to the Pizza Express menu. It was a single upturned field mushroom covered in creamy mozzarella and gently buttery pine nuts and at first I was a bit disappointed with its blandness. But then Theo, my son, who had run out of butter for his dough balls, decided to share, and found that the mushroom was sitting on a bed of rich and smoky harissa. It provided the necessary oomph which made it a good dish – although Theo was so enamoured with it that I didn’t get many more mouthfuls.

We all had pizzas for our main courses. These ranged in price from £8.95 for Theo’s basic Margherita to £14.30 for my Barbacoa. These are not cheap – the more expensive ones are the equivalent of a main course in a decent gastropub. To prevent them competing at the top end of the market, Pizza Express has become renowned for its vouchers which drive down their own prices – from Sunday to Thursday, you can easily find online ways of getting two mains for the price of one, and my student daughter Genevieve has an app which gets her 30 per cent off on those weekdays. This, though, has only compounded the chain’s financial problems.

Their pizzas, though, are good, certainly when compared to our usual Saturday night fare of a stodgy, not-quite-hot takeaway which tastes of damp cardboard.

These all arrived excitingly hot, served with wheels for us to cut. We all opted for Romana bases which are thin and crispy to allow the ample toppings to do all the talking. These, though, are structurally unsound if you try to pick them up unwrapped with fingers, and they lose their heat quite quickly.

Genevieve had a Pollo ad Astra, which was chicken with Cajun spices and garlic oil accompanied with sweet Peppadew peppers. She particularly raved about the sweetness and hotness of the peppers.

Petra had a Veneziana, which donated 25p to save Venice from sinking, and usually featured an exotic mix of pine kernels, red onion, capers, black olives, sultanas, mozzarella and tomato. She, though, asked for the sultanas to be replaced by anchovies and was pleased with the outcome.

My Barbacoa was topped with pulled beef, which had an understated taste so that it was overpowered by the spiced chipotle salsa which filled the mouth with its heat to the exclusion of all else.

Desserts are priced just under £6, and felt mass produced in comparison to the pizzas which were freshly made in the middle of the store. The vanilla cheese cake and the chocolate fudge cake were acceptable without setting the tastebuds on fire.

I had the chocolate fondant, which is a chocolate pudding with a molten chocolate interior with a ball of ice cream on top. It was pretty good, although the ice cream was rock hard and the spoon was stubby and blunt, and so the force of trying to chip a bit off the top of the ice cream caused a molten chocolate explosion below.

Our food bill for three courses for four people was £82, although somehow we managed to spend a further £35 on drinks. Service was nice and friendly, and there seemed to be plenty of vegan and vegetarian options.

It was a perfectly pleasant evening without there being anything special or particularly memorable to make us rush back.


Pizza Express, 1 Skinnergate, Darlington, DL3 7NB


Phone: 01325-488771

Ratings (out of ten): Surroundings 6, Service 8, Food quality 7, Value for money 7