Big Jo, London N7: ‘A bit of genius’

Good news being slim on the ground right now, I greeted rumours of Big Jo’s arrival with a sense of joy. Big Jo may sound a bit like a terrifically handy neighbour with massive hands who you could trust to hammer up a flat-pack shed, but is actually a capacious new pizza parlour that opened up late last month in Hornsey, north London.

OK, it’s not just a pizza parlour. It’s a pizza-selling, croissant-flogging all-day bakery with its own flour mill and grain silo, plus your own personal Jesus on every table. Every table – and the loo – is lit ethereally by a kitsch prayer candle featuring Christ’s beatific face. Or at least that tousled surf-version of Christ when he looks like one of the Kings of Leon (other takes on Christ are available). Anyway, whoever thought to smatter Lourdes-style tat tastefully throughout this big old bare space is a genius, because on a cold Saturday October evening, with the rain hammering down outside, the restaurant felt buzzy, vast and cosy all at the same time.

Our leaders’ latest Covid-thwarting brainwave – in case you’re lost – is to close all restaurants promptly at 10pm and send packs of not remotely sinister inspectors to peer through letterboxes lest they can hear people masticating after the deadline. It is unclear how forcing everyone on to public transport at roughly the same time, while simultaneously slashing the profits of every hospitality outlet that has survived thus far, is helping us combat the virus, but still, I trust those in charge implicitly. Also, this has all been a positive boon for the taxi service Uber, which now seems to be pushing the x2.6 surge button to coincide with the new kicking-out time.

I do wonder if, by around Christmas, anyone will be leaving the house at all, but if anyone can survive this, I’m thinking Big Jo can. It’s a new venture by David Gingell and Jeremie Cometto-Lingenheim, who already run Westerns Laundry in Highbury and Primeur and Jolene in Stoke Newington, and this time they’re serving deep-fried calzone that’s heaving with melted cheese, comes with a blisteringly hot chilli dipping sauce and is literally an extra pant size on a plate. But who cares when we can all wear track pants all week long anyway?

Gingell, I reckon, is a bit of a genius. I love Westerns Laundry for its never-ending ability to take simple, wholesome ingredients and make them table-thumpingly orgasmic. He’s done it again here with sardine escabeche: sharp, fresh and joyous. Or a plate of soft, sweet, skin-on baked pumpkin with mild ricotta, crisp sage leaves, hazelnuts and seeds.

The menu at Big Jo, as at all this duo’s places, changes daily, but here expect small plates, pizza by the slice and then pudding. On this particular Saturday, we ate large, plump scallops served in their shells and doggy-paddling in the most garlic-laden herb butter that a mortal human could stand. Also among the small plates was a rich, slow-stewed beef cheek with sweet, melting carrots and radicchio leaves. I am aware that none of these dishes truly “goes together”, but then, Gingell is very much a what’s-in-the-fridge-today sort of chef, and it all makes sense after a couple of glasses of Xarel·Lo, anyway.

I’m not sure that I’d describe what Big Jo is doing with bread and toppings strictly as pizza, however. Servings are smaller, richer and much more bespoke and luxurious than you’d find at Pizza Express, say. Around £7, for example, will get you a slice of, cough, regeneratively farmed local grain, economy-supporting, sustainable food-system-enhancing sourdough topped with top-notch organic smoked schiena (AKA back fat), new potato and fresh rosemary. This slice will be oily, buttery, herby and satisfying. It is neither a crisp, meagre pizza or a Chicago Town pizza or that Italian pizza that’s swept into trendy London in recent years, where everything sits on the top, unmelted and unloved. Instead, this is a Gingell spin on pizza, where the loveliest things imaginable are chucked at very good bread.

The puddings, similarly, are a Gingell take on soft-serve ice-cream, served in small glasses and filled with caramel sauce and almond praline, or warm, utterly un-Italian and decidedly Alsatian apple tart: fresh, delicate, decadent and served with creme fraiche.

We left before the night-time inspectors arrived and ticketed us all for wanton nocturnal laughing. I love Big Jo and want it to survive the apocalypse. Winter is coming, and the only thing I know for certain right now is that people will always like pizza.