Restaurant Review: Pizza Express, Headingley

Under normal circumstances even Little Oliver doesn't tend to visit anywhere quite as chainy as this.

Not that there's anything wrong with a chain, it's just that with chains one branch is usually pretty much like another, at least in terms of food.

But, since this is Pizza Express, it's slightly different.

For a kick-off they only have a handful of restaurants in Leeds. The three in the city centre are quite big affairs, but they're also quite generic.

There's one other suburban outpost, in Roundhay, which seems to do quite well for itself in the quite well-to-do neighbourhood.

Here in Headingley, presumably, they're going more for the student market, clearly savvy enough to realise that students either have more cash these days or are at least more willing to part with it.

They have a spanking spot on the main parade of Arndale Centre shops in the centre of the suburb. Sainsbury's is just to the left, Costa coffee to the right and it's a very busy thoroughfare (people-watchers take note, seriously).

But what makes this latest offering a little bit special is the decor – you'll love what they've done with the place.

They've taken what used to be a pretty unremarkable unit and tranformed it into a really lovely, warm space with a big window frontage, allowing you to watch all the aforementioned people.

Dotted around the place are numerous examples of unusual wood finishes, light fittings and the odd piece of inoffensive art on the walls.

It has their hallmark open kitchen centrepiece but somehow this feels like the next generation of Pizza Express restaurants.

It's certainly smaller, but feels more boutique in style, a shrewd move they deserve credit for, particularly in Leeds where there's always the danger of becoming seen as more of an old school outlet for junk food than convenience food.

There is a difference, and it's one obvious here.

Sure they do pizza, but it's not the awful thick, gloopy cheese-saturated affairs you'll get elsewhere. This pizza actually tastes of its composite parts.

I went for the Il Padrino – torn chicken breast, rustica tomatoes and char-grilled Italian vegetables at 9.70.

My dining partner had the Romana Pollo Pancetta – more torn chicken breast, yellow peppers, smoked pancetta and fresh parsley. Instead of tomato, it's served on an aromatic sauce made of red and yellow peppers. The cost was 10.40

And it was all superb. Not too oily, not too dry. Not too thick, but a generous amount of toppings. Packed with flavour, but not overwhelmed by garlic or pepper or over-rich tomatoes. Fantastic.

With a soft drink, the final bill came to just under 23; if we'd had two soft drinks or perhaps a couple of glasses of wine each, then we'd probably be looking at closer to 25 or 30.

So, unless you enjoy one of their frequent deals (there are several to be found online, folks) this doesn't represent budget dining.

But then Pizza Express is more about offering a more authentic, classy mode of fast food rather than doing everything on the cheap.

The service was flawless, the environment buzzing, and there's a somewhat higher class of students patronising the place.

Rating: 4/5

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