My credentials for reviewing Russia’s pizza-places are unshakeable - I was at the opening night of the first-ever pizza cafe in the USSR - in Leningrad, in 1984. It was an unforgettable night – they had a black-&-white chequerboard tiled floor (they’d painted it by hand!), they had Italian music playing, the place was packed with revellers. The only thing they didn’t have was pizza – they’d sold out by lunchtime. But you could bring your own drinks (back then private cafes couldn’t get liquor-licences), and everyone was having a great time - the welcome was warm and heartfelt, and Paolo Conte was on the cassette-player.
Fast-forward a quarter century and slightly to the south, I confidently stride into Pizzeria Barmalini near Paveletskaya. There are funny pictures on the walls and stuffed dolls and toys for the kiddywinks – not exactly the expectation I had of a pizzeria, and Barmalini is the exact opposite of my Leningrad 1984 experience. They do, indeed, have pizza. And it’s great pizza! But some other things you might expect alongside are missing.
My glamorous co-reviewer Emilia Marty arrived late – she’d walked straight past the place, not realising it was the pizzeria she was hunting for. The menu is just a simple single-sided list of pizzas only. If you want a salad, a dessert, or anything to drink, then you can pore instead through the Coffeemania menu, since Coffeemania own Barmalini and are operating full-on the other side of the adjoining partition. Avid pizza fans may well find this to be enough – especially if you’ve just popped in for a lightning lunch (and the service is indeed enviably presto
). But I love classic Italian starters like tricolore, or marinated artichokes, or a delicious bruschetta – and somewhat surprisingly, you can’t get them at Barmalini. This seems an odd decision, but presumably it’s to encourage patrons not to linger at lunchtimes? The same idea might be behind not having wi-fi either?
In many small pizzerias or trattorias in Italy, a glass of house wine comes free with the Set Meal, and it’s house wine that the owner will drink himself. Sadly this democratic approach to wine doesn’t apply at Barmalini. We were finally induced into trying a glass each of their red and white offerings - but at ten euros a pop they’re not something you ask them to bring more of. You won’t spend long choosing, though – because in fact they only have one Italian red, and one Italian white on the menu. The price of 490 roubles isn’t for a bottle – it’s for a single glass of Chianti Classico
(or 450 roubles for the white choice – an Orvieto San Giovanni Classico
). I can’t help thinking that this pricing policy is going to encourage diners to skip wine altogether.
I was in utter ignorance about Barmalini – apparently (or so Emilia told me) he was Pinocchio’s nemesis. His cartoon picture is all over the walls. The rest of the interiors consist of exposed red-brick walls and the ho-hum-seen-it-before exposed high-tech steel ducting and lighting. After seeing the latest venues unveiled by Barmalini owners Coffemania – for example their outlet in the shopping centre at Trubnaya – I was really surprised by the simplistic decor.
We ought to mention the pizzas - which are indeed excellent! Emilia took a Campagna
(490 Rbs for a single-serving pizza) – a classic Italian line-up. It came on an authentically thin base, topped with a fragrant tomato sauce and a lavishly generous covering of salami milano. The balance of flavourings, herbs and olive oil was masterly, and this is truly excellent pizza-making, although Emilia had some reservations about having so much salami on one single pizza. Barmalini’s menu offers two pizzas prepared on black dough – although surprisingly they tell you nothing at all about, err, why it’s black? I took a Quattro Mare
(450 Rbs for a single-serving pizza) which came on a deliciously thin, black-hued base. The entire area of the pizza is elegantly arrayed by segments of different seafood toppings – there’s tuna, salmon, seafood cocktail and shrimps. Better than this pizza doesn’t get, believe me – a treat for the eyes and tastebuds alike. The pizza bases themselves are enviably crisp and authentically thin, coming from a gleaming pizza oven whose substantial appearance dominates the entire kitchen area. Part of the fun of Barmalini – as in the best pizza places – is that you get to watch the pizza-making as it happens, and the kichen area is at the centre of attention in the cafe’s layout. And you certainly get the real thing here – all of the ingredients are top-quality and delicious, and the sumptuous taste delivers every expectation from enticing appearance and aroma. The difference between factory-made and hand-made couldn’t be more convincingly made – this is the pizza that Momma used to make.
There are no Italian desserts on the menu (in case you had a hankering for panna cotta, or a choice of gelateria?), but you can order desserts from the Coffeemania menu instead. I took an It Girl
dessert (310 Rbs) – a raspberry mousse decorously draped with green fronds and with a pineapple centre – a tried and tested Coffeemania favourite. Emilia wasn’t so keen on her Fortunella
(290 Rbs) – a concotion of Philadelphia cheese with mandarin and kumquat.
Paveletskaya is keenly short of eateries, and getting a lunchtime table in any of them is a ticklish business. The area all around is lined with the corporate office-blocks of Russian and foreign companies. Anyone who succeeds in opening a cafe here is going to make money – without trying especially hard.But Barmalini are trying hard, and the difference counts. The service sacrifices the personal touch in favour of ruthless efficiency – which might suit you, on occasion?
Barmalini delivers great pizza, reliably and speedily – making it an ideal place for a business-hour lunch. You’ll get a great lunch easily even if you’re pushed for time, without any fingernail-chewing about whether you’ll get back to the office on time. They’re clearly aware of the competition locally for the lunchtime trade. Where I have reservations, however, is the evening. With a major multiplex cinema around the corner, and the concert-hall/theatre complex of Dom Muzyky across the road, there’s another clientele around who might be more keen to see a wider menu (perhaps with more Italian appetisers or desserts) on offer, and whose main priority isn’t merely speedy service. This might be an area which Barmalini are looking to cover later on?
Meanwhile what’s on offer at Barmalini is pizza made to the highest standards, and not for the lowest price. That makes Barmalini a lifestyle choice, because there is certainly cheaper pizza available down the street. Yet the originality and high quality of what Barmalini is offering is worth the small extra cost, and certainly didn’t seem to be deterring diners on the day we visited. Whether they convince you to become a regular or not, Barmalini sets the benchmark for creatively-designed top-quality pizzas, and their local competitors will have to sharpen up their act to remain in contention.