We’ll admit, we're not entirely unbiased on the whole Pizza Express debacle.
We love Pizza Express. We love its comforting, familiar omnipresence on the high street. We love the fact that we know what we're going to get on the menu, from little plates of dough balls to perfectly cheesy garlic bread.
We love the fact that when every other place is heaving on a rainy weekend lunch, Pizza Express will be always able to squeeze you in somewhere. And it’ll stay open after late-night cinema showings on a Sunday when everyone else has buggered off home. We love the fact that you can take noisy kids there and nobody bats an eyelid – they’ll even give you a colouring kit.
Nor does anyone raise an eyebrow if your drunken, crying relative disappears into the toilet for half an hour while you munch uncomfortably on bread sticks. But that’s another story.
The story here is Holly Aston, a journalism student - reportedly aged 17 - who visited Pizza Express recently with her mum and wrote up a review for the Peterborough Telegraph. Like many others, Holly is a fan of the unsung pizza chain and provided a thorough account of her experience of the restaurant’s two courses for £10 deal.
She is a conscientious reviewer, meticulously detailing her reaction to each dish served. Her first thought when the La Reine pizza arrives is "'wow' - as it look perfectly cooked and quite big in size." She goes onto note that there "wasn’t an awful lot of cheese" and makes mention of the "overpowering" tomato base. She sums up, "This is somewhere we will definitely consider visiting again."
Holly’s account is not the most sophisticated piece ever written, just as Pizza Express is not the most authentic Italian cuisine you will ever taste. But it is written honestly and entirely without guile. And it provoked a storm on Twitter.
First came the haters, full of derision and scorn barely concealed within pithy, 140 character missives. They were wittily scathing about Holly’s undisguised enthusiasm and painstaking breakdown of a high street meal deal. The reaction prompted the editor of the Peterborough Telegraph to add a note to the review, saying, "I briefly took the author’s name off because I wanted to check that the student journalist who wrote it was comfortable with the situation. To her credit she is and we stand by her review. In hindsight I think I should have made it clear that the author was a student in the byline."
Then came the backlash – the people, including Caitlin Moran and food critic Marina O’Loughlin – who noted that the review everyone was bashing was a.) written by an under-18 and b.) full of the kind of joyful enthusiasm that is rare indeed in a world of wizened old hacks. People started declaring it the best thing they'd ever read.
Pizza Express critic is apparently 17-years-old. Darling you've made everyone so happy. Please write more reviews. Feel the love.— Caitlin Moran (@caitlinmoran) September 19, 2014
The truth is, it felt like a breath of fresh air to read an honest, celebratory, 'this is bloody lovely' review.
Holly is no AA Gill and that’s a good thing. Her review is charming exactly because it lacks any of the kind of loaded irony we have come to associate with entertaining reviews. In an age where journalism can be calculating and judgmental, where those on Twitter compete to be wittier and more knowing than the last person, it is simply refreshing to hear someone say it like it is. And to be untarnished by the type of snobbery that so many people have around high street chains. It's also a pertinent reminder that there are few greater pleasures in life than enjoying a meal out with someone you love.
The editor's response to the backlash
As Pizza Express, it's having a field day. There’s been a swirl of affection on Twitter for this perennial high street favourite. Like an aged 80s rock star on a comeback, people who haven’t thought about it for years are suddenly declaring their love.
But the greatest winner of the whole furore is Holly herself. Not only has she scored a freebie with Pizza Express for her inadvertent PR stunt, she’s also been offered work experience at the Daily Mirror. And of course, she’s a student. She’ll learn how to hone her phrases, how to fine tune her vocabulary and how to insert succinct little observations here and there, if that’s what she wants.
Whether the rest of us can learn how to drop our hardened, world-weary guard and learn to cut people some slack is another matter. And so the Twitter train rolls on.