Pizza Express founder

Born: November 16, 1929.

Died: December 5, 2018.

PETER Boizot, who has died aged 89, was the founder of Pizza Express, which he started with a takeaway in London’s Soho in the 1960s, personally serving slices of pizza (two shillings a slice, wrapped in napkins).

His first day’s takings were £3. But Pizza Express became a global chain of more than 500 restaurants worldwide, last valued at close to £1 billion. He himself had sold the business years earlier, in 1993, for a “mere” £15 million but remained symbolically as president of the company because of his stature as founder. It is now owned by the Chinese company Hony Capital and has 22 outlets in China.

At a time when fish n’ chips ruled our streets but curry and Chinese restaurants were beginning to win us over, Boizot (pronounced Boyzo) revolutionized the food and takeaway industry in the UK.

Pizza Express became the template for countless other pizza outlets here and far beyond, from Pizzaland and Pizza Hut to the more recent Franco Manca.

With their bright lighting, relaxing décor, faux marble table tops, clean lines and family-friendly middle-class atmosphere, Pizza Express restaurants made it cool to eat pizza, previously regarded as “Italian peasant food” by pasta-loving customers of trendy UK trattoria restaurants. In the culinary industry in the UK, Boizot became known as Mr Pizza.

“Boz,” as his friends called him, went on to use his millions as a philanthropist, investing in sport, jazz, the fight to prevent Venice from sinking and above all his beloved football and field hockey.

He bought the struggling football club Peterborough United (nicknamed “The Posh” by its fans) and as owner and chairman invested millions to keep the club alive and thrive at the turn of the millennium.

A keen hockey player, he played for Hampstead and Westminster Hockey Club veterans and he remained the club’s president emeritus until his death. He even converted the basement of one of his pubs, the Carlton in Maida Vale, into a changing room for him and his hockey teammates.

It all began when Boizot, born and brought up in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire (where he became revered, see below), returned from a tour of western Europe in his mid-thirties during which he worked to pay his way, once as a news agency journalist and latterly selling postcards and other tourist items on St Peter’s Square in Rome.

He had already fallen in love with Italy and pizza while working as an English tutor for a family in Florence in 1948. As a vegetarian since childhood (he got disgusted by raw liver served up by his mum during wartime rationing), pizza suited him just fine.

But when he returned to the UK and settled in London, he couldn’t find anything resembling what he called “a proper pizza.” So he opened his first takeway shop in Wardour Street, Soho, in 1965, using a wood-fired oven he had bought for £600 in Italy.

When he saw that customers remained standing and drinking coca cola from his machine, he laid out a few tables. The first UK pizzeria was born. It was 1965, the middle of the Swinging Sixties, and Pizza Express became a magnet for the bell-bottomed, the hippies, both the Mods and the Rockers, the “immigrants” to London from up North, from Scotland, the tourists from the U.S. or Japan.

Pizza was cool, while the tea and coffee houses such as the white table-cloth Lyon’s Corner, the Wimpy bars and Berni Inns, were becoming rather passé.

Mr Boizot also learned an early lesson: plastic forks melted when scooping up melted cheese. He was forced to adopt proper cutlery and what he called “the best Woolworth’s china.”

He was also greatly helped by his old friend the restaurateur, cartoonist and designer Enzo Apicella who gave the early Pizza Express restaurants their unique feel. Mr Apicella did away with the plastic vines, the raffia-clad Chianti bottles and the classic faded trattoria paintings of Mount Vesuvius or Lake Como, replacing them with pop art murals, terracotta tiles and spotlighting.

“I made pizzas in front of the customers, something people had never seen before,” Mr Boizot recalled years later. “It made them talk to their friends about the restaurant … ‘a place has opened down the road and you can see the chefs making pizzas, stretching the dough out with their hands.’”

Mr Boizot soon decided to mix two of his greatest loves, pizza and music. He introduced live music in Pizza Express, starting with the Original String Quartet which went on to win nationwide fame. He had seen live music in American and continental European restaurants but it was somewhat radical in the London of the Sixties. Stars who performed in his Pizza Express Jazz Club included Ella Fitzgerald, Sting, Norah Jones and Jamie Cullum.

He was also the first to introduce the Italian lager Peroni to the UK.

As an active supporter of what was then the Liberal Party, he stood unsuccessfully as a potential MP for Peterborough in the two general elections of 1974. Although Pizza Express became what we usually call a chain, Mr Boizot preferred to call it “a necklace of individual gems.”

Peter James Boizot was born in the Walton area of Peterborough on November 16, 1929, to Gaston Boizot, an insurance inspector and his wife Suzannah. He attended King’s School (also known as the Cathedral School) in the city and became Head Boy before doing his National Service in the Army and going up to Cambridge University to read History at St. Catherine’s College.

Last month, he was recognised by the Pizza, Pasta and Italian Food Association with an award for his outstanding contribution to the industry. He was named MBE by the Queen in 1986 for his “political and public service.” He never married and had no children. His closest family survivor is his sister Clementine.

Once asked why he did not marry, he said: “I love women. They are one of my favourite hobbies. But I had such fun looking that I just carried on. But the older you get, the fewer you get.”

A cheery and humble soul, often with bushy white eyebrows, he was much loved in the UK culinary industry and maintained an almost boyish enthusiasm for Pizza Express until his death. In 2014, he published his autobiography Mr Pizza and All That Jazz with the help of journalist Matthew Reville.

He remained revered in his hometown of Peterborough where he spent £9m on a complex including a cinema and art gallery. He received several honorary degrees, in the UK and in Italy for his support of the fight to preserve and improve Venice.

In 1975, he had introduced the Pizza Veneziana (the Venice Pizza), which carried a 5p surcharge which he sent to one of his favourite causes, the Venice in Peril Fund. He later raised the surcharge to 25p, usually accepted happily by customers, and more than £2 million has gone to help the great Italian city survive and prosper.

Outside Peterborough, London’s Soho, site of his first pizzeria, remained close to his heart. He fought for and invested in Soho at a time when it was suffering from an increasingly-seedy reputation for drugs, crime and prostitution. He raised cash for the Soho Community Environment Fund, founded the Soho Jazz Festival and launched a private magazine, Boz, aimed at preserving Soho.

He was appointed Knight Commander of the Order of Merit by Italy, Deputy Lieutenant of Cambridgeshire and Freeman of the City of Peterborough.

Almost until his dying day, he liked to visit Pizza Express, where his favourite was a quattro formaggi with chopped basil leaf and extra green peppers.