Remembering Peter Boizot, Founder of Pizza Express and One of My Favourite Clients
Peter Boizot, founder of Pizza Express, passed away last December at the grand age of 89.
I was fortunate to work with Peter when I was still an up and coming architect. He was known as a risk taker who thrived on a challenge, qualities I would later learn he recognised in me as a young, energetic entrepreneur.
It was just a year after I had started my practice and we worked with him on the Great Northern Hotel, Broadway Cinema and XXX Restaurant in Peterborough. He also introduced me to Enzo Apicella, the flamboyant Italian designer and peter’s partner in crime.
Gaston restaurant in Peterborough, where Peter Boizot came up with the idea of the chefs doubling as performers in front of the diners.
These were the commissions every fledgling practice dreams of. Peter was very hands on; he loved to don a hard hat and walk around the building site issuing instructions and encouraging everyone.
At exactly 12.30pm each day work stopped for a giant lunch – no doubt a habit which continued from Peter’s Italian lifestyle. Great debates took place on jazz, politics, football and design. The rest of the afternoon was spent brainstorming future projects.
One day I asked him to recount his story:
From First Slice to a Pizza Empire
Peter first tasted pizza at 19, when working as a tutor for an Italian family in Florence. It was the perfect dish for the lifelong vegetarian, and it continued to be a favourite of Peter’s during the ten years he spent living across Europe.
But on his return to London, he couldn’t find so much as a single slice of his continental staple. This was the early 60s, when London was still a culinary backwater of Europe, and the few Italian restaurants that were open wouldn’t risk offending their Italian patrons with what was considered peasant food.
So, in 1965 – just as year after his return to London – Peter imported a pizza oven from Naples, hired a Sicilian chef and opened his own, and London’s first, pizzeria: Pizza Express in Warder Street, Soho.
What began as a standing-only restaurant where pizza was sold by the slice on grease-proof paper quickly grew in popularity, with branches opening in Bloomsbury, Fulham and Notting Hill in just two years – with tables, chairs, plates and cutlery following not long after.
Customers were delighted to watch pizza being made in front of them and it didn’t take long for Pizza Express to become a London favourite and inspire a national obsession with the now-ubiquitous pizza.
Along with the quality of the food, the colourful, modern interior design of the restaurants themselves was instrumental in making Pizza Express stand out as a fashionable alternative to its stuffy and kitschy competition.
This unique visual brand was the work of larger-than-life Italian designer and cartoonist Enzo Apicella, who also passed away last year. Apicella first worked with Peter on the Bloomsbury branch of Pizza Express and went on to design more than 80.
Apicella’s defiance of pastiche and contrived authenticity in favour of a pop art reinterpretation of Italian art and design permanently altered the style of London’s restaurant scene into one more appropriate for the capital’s cool new reputation which had solidified by the end of the 60s.
Peter remained president of Pizza Express throughout its meteoric growth. He was a fervent defender and advocate of Soho’s character during the 80s through charitable works and his cultural magazine ‘Boz’ (his nickname).
After pizza, Peter’s second love was jazz. He opened the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho in 1969 and in 1986 founded the Soho Jazz Festival. He remained a patron of jazz throughout his life, as well as a philanthropist celebrated for his charitable efforts in his home town of Peterborough and his home-away-from home, Venice.
He was a true visionary and it was a privilege to know him. He loved working with creative people and solving problems fearlessly. He will be sorely missed.
Learn more about Peter Boizot’s fascinating life in his autobiography, ‘Mr Pizza and All That Jazz’.