Some journalists wait their entire careers for their one big scoop. Others have it fall into their lap. And so it was one unassuming Thursday afternoon, when I was looking for the best pizza in Bristol and received an email from Matt Hayes.
“Myself and seven friends go out every Tuesday for pizza. We have an Excel guru who has kept scores for the last 12 months,” he wrote.
Said Excel spreadsheet was attached, listing and scoring more than 30 Bristolian pizza joints. The names were blurred out. As we arranged to meet, I briefly wondered whether I might be asked to sign the official secrets act.
The following Tuesday, I turned up hungry to meet the Pizza Crew – Simon Western, Darren Toner, Dave Padfield, Matt Hayes, Rich James, Pat Wood, Rob North and Mark Cook – at Bertha’s, their current number one spot in the city.
We said our pleasantries on a long table on the ground floor in front of Bertha’s majestic pizza oven, handmade especially for them in Naples.
But let’s not beat around the bush: what I was really there for was the spreadsheet.
Pat reached into his bag and pulled out a plastic folder, bristling with pieces of paper. He handed everyone around the table a shiny, wipe-clean copy. Laminated. Colour-coded. Perfect.
At the top, in dark green, sat Bertha’s with a score of 9.2, and the only entry to break the nine barrier. Rock bottom and written in a firey red 4.8 was Pizza Provençal (on the site of the current Bosco in Clifton Village).
“I feel bad about that one,” Pat said. “But someone has to be at the bottom.”
“Pizza Crew started with Domino’s,” explained Rich as we ordered drinks and browsed the menu. “They opened a place in Nailsea, where a lot of us live. At that time, they were about the only place that delivered, and as they did a deal on a Tuesday, we’d order pizza and go over to someone’s house every Tuesday night.”
“That was about six years ago,” Pat jumped in, picking up the story. “Since then we reckon we’ve eaten more than 300 pizzas each.”
After years of the Tuesday night arrangement, eating at their various homes around Nailsea and Portishead began to get more difficult to balance with family life and young children. So, during the summer of 2016, a tour was proposed. “Let’s be fair, it was an excuse to get out of the house,” Rich joked. “Tuesdays, we all get a free pass. We just have to say, ‘It’s pizza night!’”
Kicking off with visits to the aforementioned unfortunate and no-longer-with-us Pizza Provençal, Pizza Express on Park Street and Pizzarova, the friends have now worked their way through 40 restaurants in Bristol, Portishead, Weston-super-Mare, Nailsea and Clevedon.
Criteria for scoring varies between them. “I’ve worked in hospitality, so I’m probably the harshest,” Darren said.
“Rich always takes into consideration the lighting and whether the stool was wobbly too,” joked Pat, with the good-natured banter of a bunch of friends who have known each other for years.
The pizzas arrived still steaming from Bertha’s oven, with a burnt sourdough crust and simple, fresh ingredients. The lads demolished theirs and I brought up the rear with a couple of slices still on my plate as they contemplated a second. “£10 says you couldn’t eat two,” Darren said to Pat and they shook on it. “We’ll have to come back!”
While Bertha’s comfortably topped their spreadsheet, as we chatted I realised that I’d missed a trick: the previous Tuesday, the guys broke the mold, got their pizza to go and hopped on board Pat’s boat for a whizz around the north Somerset coast from Portishead to Clevedon (“although we went over a wave and didn’t notice that the boxes had fallen on their sides – it was like a messy calzone”).
They showed me footage of the trip, filmed with Pat’s drone (“it ran out of battery at the end; Matt was chief catcher”), all sunkissed waves and the speedboat leaving a trailing wake through the blue water. It looked like the opening credits of a sexy cop drama where the guys on stake-outs eat a lot of pizza (lads – if you sell the rights, call it Hawaiian 5-0 and give me 10 per cent).
Rob showed me a photo of the oven he’s built in his back garden, and Dave told me about the sourdough starter he’s got, called Sonya. “He keeps her in his fridge,” said Pat. “It’s his only female interaction,” Matt quipped.
Though these are guys who really like pizza, it became clear that Tuesday nights are far more about friendship than pepperoni.
Cook told me about the period after his daughter was born and was kept in hospital for several weeks. “The lads found the closest place to the hospital – Beerd at Colston Hall – and got me out for an hour,” he said. “That’s what Pizza Club is all about, being there for each other.”
“Yeah,” Pat jumped in. “It’s like the Freemasons.”
We pored over the magnificent spreadsheet once again as the guys finished the meal off with a bowl of Bertha’s delicious gelato. Of the 50 or so pizza joints they had earmarked to try, only around ten are now left. “It’s getting difficult to pick one,” Pat admitted, “but then again, places are opening up all the time. I want to do curry next.”
This suggestion was met with jeers from the table. “I’d find it hard to put pizza behind us,” said Darren, and there were nods of agreement.
As Tuesday night wrapped up, we emerged from Bertha’s canary yellow doors out into the blue, fairy-lit darkness of Wapping Wharf. “Why would you eat shit pizza at home when there are places like this on your doorstep?” Pat said. “Exactly,” said Si. “Plus the lighting’s great and the chairs are comfortable.”
Read more: Your Bristol Favourites – pizza