What have Prezzo, Zizzi, ASK Italian, Carluccio’s, Strada, Franco Manca and Jamie’s Italian all got in common? It’s not a particularly difficult question. They have all ridden the wave of casual dining and aggressively expanded their footprints to satisfy the UK consumers’ appetite for affordable Italian food.
This growth has been fuelled by the availability of cheap debt, which has been used with great abandon by the private equity firms that own the majority of these businesses. It’s an incredible statistic six of the nine mid-market UK casual dining chains that have more than 100 restaurants serve Italian food, according to Deloitte.
These businesses also have something else in common – they are facing strong headwinds, with the harsh result most of them are now closing outlets or at the very least abandoning their expansion strategies. At a recent count, there are almost 120 of these branded restaurants set to close.
Italian continues to be one of my family’s favourite cuisines. What’s not to like about pasta, pizza and ice cream? Not a lot you would say, but in a crowded market the problem these big-branded Italian restaurant chains are facing is the growing number of people who seem to have become tired of their undifferentiated offers. They have become somewhat blurred.
Part of this has undoubtedly been a result of rising costs that have pushed the large operators into a corner and force them to focus their attention on cost engineering rather than developing innovative and tasty new products.
This is especially dangerous because it comes at a time when diners are increasingly discerning about what they put into their mouths. We are talking about provenance and authenticity again. They seek out more unique products that invariably take them away from the bigger players.
The reality is Italian food is not going out of fashion at all. According to the 2018 Pizza Occasion Consumer Trend Report from Technomic, in the US people are eating pizza more regularly and more options are emerging. Sales among the limited-service pizza industry grew 3.7% in 2017.
It’s just a case of demand moving away from middle-of-the-road anglicised inventions into more authentic localised Italian cuisine. This is especially noticeable in the pizza category where operators are being driven into niches and specialised areas.
We are not talking about square pizzas (Zizzi was recently trumpeting its “innovative” oblong creation) and odd toppings but moving into other more regional pizza types that can be found in specific areas of Italy. I have to admit I had no idea there were so many variations on the pizza theme.
I’ve visited the home of pizza in Naples and sampled that particular thin-crust oily style of pie but I’ve never been into areas of the country that specialise in a whole variety of dough-based offerings.
Taking just the south of the country there are a myriad pizza styles. In Calabria alone can be found the delights of mpigliati con le sarde, cullura, pizza al taglio and a moon-shaped calzone-style pizza called falagone. There is also the very simple affair of pasta da forno that is served for breakfast and consists simply of crushed tomato, salt, oregano and olive oil atop the dough.
Moving on to Puglia and there is a focaccia specific to Altamura – the thick focaccia altamurana has a dough made only with semolina flour and is topped with tomato and green olives. And in Basilicata can be found panzerotto di carne, which are small calzones filled with minced pork and spices that are baked before final seasoning. There is also a fried version – panzerotto fritto. We can add to this strazzata, a fresh crispy summer-style pizza topped with peppers, tomato and extra virgin olive oil.
There seems an almost endless variety of pizza types to be found in Italy – some I predict will likely find their way into the UK restaurant industry in some form or other because of the combination of our insatiable appetite for Italian food (pizza particularly) and the increasing demand for unique differentiated foods that right now are not being delivered by the hundreds of branded Italian casual dining chains.
Glynn Davis is a leading commentator on retail trends.