Chain restaurants and their vegan options have come such a long way in the last year and with most pizza places offering a version for vegans, it seemed only right to assess the vegan pizza situation and find out how these ‘vegan pizzas’ compare with each other. (I know. Woe is me.) Which one is a pleasantly surprising alternative that doesn’t leave you feeling short changed and which is best used as a door stop?
Dairy free ‘cheese’ is a bone of contention for many vegans, with even more would-be vegans stating that the absence of real cheese is the one thing stopping them from committing to a plant-based diet. I understand this completely, but the alternatives are getting better. Sadly, not all of the pizza restaurants know which ones are the best to use. And here-in lies the problem. A pizza, in its simplest form, is nothing more than bread, tomato and cheese. The vegetable toppings and the bread are already vegan, it’s the cheese you have to get right. So, here’s how it went…
Pizza Express – 7/10
Arguably, with its middle class target market and tendency to stray the furthest from traditional pizza toppings, Pizza Express might seem the best positioned to do vegan pizza properly. Like all of the restaurants reviewed here, they offer vegan cheese on any of their pizzas and you can either order straight off the menu or have a play with the toppings. I went for the Vegan Giardiniera on a classic base – it comes with artichokes, closed cup mushrooms, red onion and black olives, tomato, vegan mozzarella alternative and garlic oil, finished with fresh parsley.
I’m not sure what cheese Pizza Express use for vegans, but it’s like many of the vegan mozzarella alternatives. It tastes nice and quite similar to mozzarella (it’s creamy and mild) but it tends to be a bit watery and it hasn’t a hope in hell of going stringy. But honestly, that doesn’t bother me. If nothing else it makes it a bit less messy to eat! And I’m reminded of all the calories I’m saving too, by not having the real deal.
The pizza itself was nice, but they always are at Pizza Express. The base tasted authentic, it stayed quite soft at the centre and crispy at the edges. My only criticism (of Pizza Express pizzas in general!) is they are often a bit stingy with the toppings – the portion of vegan cheese was very meagre, as you can see above. And on this occasion, our server was not remotely interested in our dietary requirements or open to recommending any the dishes. But service aside, as a vegan alternative I was more than happy and really didn’t miss the real mozzarella. It was moist and tasted great – the combo of toppings was succulent and gave a strong, salty flavour. All the things I love.
Pizza Hut – 4/10
Pizza Hut is a great family friendly place to go and get your money’s worth on the salad bar and not worry if your kids are being annoying, but their pizzas are not authentic. Their bases aren’t thin enough and I find the dough to be quite stodgy. But when I heard they’ve jumped on the vegan bandwagon, it was only fair to throw them into the mix!
I found the same thing as usual with the base – even the all American thin version. However the biggest thing letting their vegan pizza down is their decision to use Violife cheese. Now – I am not hating on Violife, I use it at home all the time, it’s good for putting in the middle of toasties and perfect for making cheese sauce. But if you grate it and put it on top of something, it just dries out on the surface and goes quite a weird, sticky texture underneath. It also doesn’t have the flavour of mozzarella at all, it’s more like the squeezy cheese you can buy for burgers and nachos. So it’s not going to replicate an authentic pizza at all.
I decided to create my own with mushrooms, black olives, caramelised onions and rocket. The toppings were OK but the cheese had dried out, the base was too thick and so the whole thing was chewy, stodgy and totally underwhelming. I wanted to like it, the same way I way I want to like every vegan effort by a chain restaurant! But this just didn’t cut it for me. If you’re not fussy about pizza being authentic and as close to proper Italian pizza as possible, then still give it a go. But if you’re a die-hard pizza lover, there are way better places.
On a more positive note for the Hut, we were encouraged by our extremely helpful, knowledgeable and vegan friendly waitress to try their Jack Rolls as an appetiser – these are crispy baked tortilla rolls, filled with BBQ Jackfruit, sweet chilli sauce and Violife cheese. (You can see these at the top of the image above.) I really enjoyed these, so they’re worth a visit and would make a good accompaniment to the salad bar. Our waitress gave us a list of everything vegan friendly on the menu and salad bar, including the dressings. This was really helpful, but it’s disappointing that the only vegan salad dressings are vinaigrette or oils. There’s no vegan mayo or anything creamy.
The other shocking discovery for me, was when we were told (after already having poured our drinks from the dispenser) that due to the non-vegan recipe of Diet Pepsi (which I had chosen, why did I not know this?!), all other drinks that come from the same machine would be cross-contaminated. That doesn’t really bother me since I’m not fully vegan at this point and even if I was I don’t think I’d allow myself to be worried about cross contamination of dairy traces – how hellish would you want to make your life?! But the non-vegan recipe of Diet Pepsi really surprised me. I looked it up afterwards and Pepsi (the morons) won’t disclose what makes it non-vegan. That’s really responsible, well done Pepsi.
Zizzi – 9/10
Zizzi for me, has hands down the best pizza for a chain restaurant outside of Italy. The bases are exactly how they should be, slightly crispy at the edges and still floury; their toppings are authentic and generous and with the vegan version, they use the best Mozzarella alternative I’ve tried (Mozzarisella – it’s made in Treviso, Italy from rice milk – which has to be encouraging!)
The last vegan pizza I had in Zizzi was the Primavera on a Rustica base, I asked for a vegan version without the goat’s cheese. It was topped with artichokes, spinach, fire-roasted peppers, olives, balsamic tomatoes and rocket.
It was divine – the base, stretched that extra bit and crispy, was perfect and the mozzarisella, whilst not stringy, stayed moist and tasted lovely. The pizza even came with a cute little ‘vegan’ sticker on the board, to give me peace of mind that it hadn’t been mixed up. The staff were helpful, the ambience in Zizzi is more traditional and the nicest of the three places reviewed here and the only way their vegan pizza could be topped (no pun intended) is if they managed to source a stringy vegan mozzarella. I’ve heard there have been developments made where stringy is concerned, so watch this space!
As a general tip for ordering vegan pizza – don’t be afraid to mix things up, because the options labelled ‘vegan’ on the menu, will be few and far between. As long as they have a vegan mozzarella alternative, do a ‘create your own’ and go to town! (Making sure they know you want dairy free.)
If there are any other great vegan pizzas you’ve had at a UK chain restaurant, then let me know. I’d love to add them to this blog! I know that Frankie & Benny’s and Ask do them now, so I’ll be checking them out soon…