PETER Boizot, the man responsible for bringing pizza to the UK, has died at the age of 89.
One of the most remarkable and impactful entrepreneurs and philanthropists of recent times, Peter threw open the doors of the first PizzaExpress on Wardour Street, Soho, in 1965. With it, he revolutionised the UK restaurant scene forever, bringing casual dining to the high-street.
Raised in Peterborough, he returned to the city after his various travels and his generous exploits earned him the affectionate nickname ‘Mr Peterborough’. He bought his beloved Peterborough United in 1997, an endeavour of affection rather than financial gain, and also transformed the city’s old Odeon cinema into the Broadway Theatre.
After serving in the army and studying at Cambridge, Peter travelled to Europe, living and working in France, Germany and Switzerland before settling in Rome; reporting for the Associated Press and selling postcards from a barrow in St Peter’s Square.
Having fallen for the continental dining culture, Peter returned to London, distraught to find that there was nowhere to buy a proper Italian pizza. Ever an opportunist, he decided to make, sell and eat it himself.
Peter’s ambition for authenticity, combined with an uncommon determination, proved to be a winning combination. Shipping an authentic pizza oven over from Naples and sourcing real mozzarella from the only producer in London, it was this same drive that made Peter the first man to import Peroni to the UK. His first premises were secured from Margaret Zampi, widow of the late film director, Mario Zampi.
The restaurant first welcomed the public on 27 March 1965 to Wardour Street. Creating the concept of casual dining, square slices of pizza were sold in grease-proof paper through the front window. The company has grown since then, and PizzaExpress has become part of millions of people’s lives, but the ethos of a simple menu and warm service remains very much the same.
An avid art collector throughout his life, Peter was keen to create a stylish aesthetic for his restaurant, teaming up with Italian designer, Enzo Apicella, to do so. Together, they introduced a wine menu, dining tables, the signature PizzaExpress open kitchen and simple, attractive furnishings. Celebrities and journalists flocked to the restaurant and a brand was born.
The second restaurant opened on Coptic Street, next to the British Museum, in 1967. Formerly a dairy, Peter gave Enzo a brief to replicate the aura of the first PizzaExpress but with a completely unique design and décor, in keeping with the building’s character and charm.
This became a feature of PizzaExpress’ roll-out, with Peter as determined to avoid becoming homogenous, as he was to grow the business. Rather than a chain, he often compared his restaurants to a necklace, with each link, a highly polished gem. Enzo went on to design over 85 PizzaExpress restaurants.
In 1980, Peter took the opportunity offered to him by ‘King of Soho’ Paul Raymond to buy Kettner’s. Peter retained the historic restaurant as an independent entity and revived it to one of London’s most prominent celebrity hangouts. Current owner and founder of Soho House, Nick Jones attributes the heyday under Boizot as the time at which he first dreamed of owning Kettner’s.
Peter’s interests expanded beyond the realms of pizza and his adoration of jazz music permeated the business. Turning the basement of the Dean St site into a jazz club, the venue became a celebrated destination in its own right, with famous performers such as Jamie Cullum and Norah Jones gracing the keys. Peter was also the instigator of the Soho Jazz festival, set up a jazz magazine called Boz and even went so far as to establish a PizzaExpress record label!
To those who knew him, Peter was a larger than life, fun-loving character. From health and safety battles to enable him to provide beers for chefs, giving staff extravagant gifts such as Hermes ties, to treating restaurants full of people to free meals if Peterborough won a match, stories of his generosity are in no short supply.
He was also very engaged in charity work. Hearing of the contribution made by Venice in Peril following the 1966 floods, he invented the Veneziana pizza, donating a percentage of each one bought. The pizza remains on the menu and donations have now topped the £2million mark. His charitable ethos continues in the business today, with over £1.5 million already raised over the last two years for MacMillan Cancer Support.
Despite selling his shares in the business in 1992, Peter’s vision continued to thrive. With a loyal fan base, continued success and more restaurants opening both in the UK and globally, it’s fair to say that Peter brought Italy to Britain, then British Italian to the world. PizzaExpress now has more than 470 restaurants across the UK and a further 12 markets beyond.
Looking back to the earliest days of PizzaExpress, Peter was adamant he never doubted the potential of pizza or that he was the man to introduce it to the UK. “The world was my oyster! I believed I could go as far as I could”, he insisted. He will be remembered for his vision, his innovation, his extravagance and his warmth.
Zoe Bowley, MD of PizzaExpress UK and Ireland said, “We are extremely saddened to share the news of Peter’s passing. On behalf of the PizzaExpress family, Peter’s spirit, vision and his passion for good food and good times, will live on and we will continue to carry forward his legacy through the people and culture of our business. We will all miss him dearly. Our thoughts are with his friends and family at this time”.
Peter used to say “Stick with me and you’ll see life”. There’s no doubting that.