THE menu at Purezza in St James’s Street might be varied, but a meal there always starts the same way.

As soon as you step through the door, a smiling waitress is waiting with a question: “And are you aware that we are a plant-based establishment?”

Plenty of people aren’t. It’s an easy mistake to make.

Aside from the cheerful vegetable stencil art adorning the front window, it looks much like any other local Italian joint. Think timber beams, warm lighting and a huge tiled pizza oven dominating the open kitchen.

But there’s one key difference. Despite a menu packed with pizza, pasta and plenty of creamy desserts, not even a whiff of animal by-product makes it past those gleaming doors.

That means no eggs, no milk and not a scrap of cheesy goodness. Don’t even dream of any actual meat. This week The Gourmand is testing out the UK’s first vegan pizzeria.

To set the record straight, it’s fair to say we went in feeling a tad sceptical. It’s hard to imagine anything that brings culinary joy that hasn’t at some stage been squirted or squeezed out of a farmyard creature.

But the Purezza team take the vegan way seriously. Purezza, it turns out, means purity and these self-confessed “plant pioneers” go above and beyond to create “cruelty free” alternatives. Their mozzarella alone took two years to develop, using a blend of rice milk, chickpea and olive oil. They also produce their own selection of raw cashew cheeses, a ricotta style option and a creamy coconut variety.

It’s a miserable old night in St James’s Street when we arrive – lashing rain and tottering drunks a plenty. But at 9pm on a Tuesday the place is full, with only one spare table.

We begin with two dishes from the starter menu. “Salmon else” is a take on a smoked salmon bellini, a crisp linseed cracker base, topped with creamy sauce and wafer thin curls of carrot. It’s three light and delicate mouthfuls, nothing much like salmon, but a pleasant start.

Next out is a plate of focaccia strips with three small dipping pots – a slightly grainy hummus, a wonderfully herby and fresh pesto and a thin but punchy beetroot option. Naming it focaccia takes a bit of creative licence – they are really strips of pizza base but very nice ones, crispy on the outside and hot and chewy in the middle, with a lovely scattering of rosemary and sea salt.

On to the mains and we opt for a burger and pizza. The Big Smoke burger comes tucked inside a folded pizza, closer to pitta bread than a standard burger bun. It’s stuffed with a thin pea protein patty, but flavour-wise the star is the delicious strips of fried aubergine and smoky mozzarella. The whole dish is dripping in condiments – a mayonnaise, caramelised onions and an earthy beetroot sauce that sploshes out of the bun with impressive force. A side of veggie crisps – kale and sweet potato – is a nice crispy touch.

The calzone arrives looking like an enticing little parcel, thin sourdough pizza dough that’s plump and bursting with filling, with layers of melted mozzarella, basil and tomato sauce. Inside it’s a blend of spinach, caramelised onions and ricotta style cheese. The menu also mentions a pea pancetta but if it’s there we can’t find it. It’s a tasty mix, well seasoned, a hint of sweetness from the caramelised onion and a certain creaminess from the ricotta substitute. But texturally it isn’t perfect – overwhelmingly soft and a little wet.

Last out are the puddings, and here we had high hopes. There are some incredible vegan puds to be found in the city – the vegan chocolate and beetroot cake at Grocer and Grain, in Surrey Street, is a thing of beauty. But Purezza’s take is, well, fine. They aren’t afraid to tackle the classics. Their raw tiramisu features a date and almond base topped with a layer of cashew cream. It’s a little grainy and very loose in texture, with with very little coffee flavour.

The chocolate brownie is better, but by no means perfect. Served cold and closer to a sponge in texture, it’s not quite the oozing mess of cocoa and gluttony that makes a good brownie. We top things off with two scoops of ice cream – a classic vanilla and a salted caramel brownie. Both are flavourful and not too sweet but a little icy and grainy on the palate.

And so, a mixed experience for our debut vegan pizzeria experience.

There’s a lot to like about what the Purezza team offer up. But it’s the dishes that nurture and coax the best out of a humble veg that shine much more brightly than those trying desperately to mimic the indulgence of cream and butter.

If The Gourmand decides to embrace the vegan lifestyle I know I’ll be in safe hands, but for now it’s the parma ham life for me.

  • The Gourmand pays for all his meals.


Food: ★★★☆☆

Atmosphere: ★★★☆☆

Service: ★★★☆☆