Closing down a McDonald’s is an achievement many people can’t add to their résumés, but for one Italian chef, this is a reality.
Travellers who drive to Altamura in southern Italy are greeted by a small, slightly rusted sign that simply reads ‘The City of Bread’.
It carries that title for a reason because the sleepy city changed on December 2002 when an enormous yellow M that loomed above the Piazza Zanardelli was taken down and its windows shrouded.
This was the day that McDonald’s, the home of industrial fries and big macs, was shut down due to the locals love of one thing; panzerotti.
The street food pizza is made from a 10 inch, thinly rolled Sourdough pizza base that is precision loaded with ingredients before being closed to form a crescent that’s deep-fried.
But this pizza – once the staple of the 65,000 residents of Altamura – is a meal that no longer requires an EasyJet booking to get to after chef Gianni Perillo opened an entire stand dedicated to the fried delicacy in Tooting.
Panzerotto Blues in Tooting Market opened in late November and is the company’s second branch, with the first in Greenwich.
As the 40-year-old Altamura-born turned Hackney local Gianni spoke to me, dough powder on his upper lip and spindly, thin glasses on his nose, the level of enthusiasm was impossible to ignore.
It’s clearly difficult to put his passion into words, but he expresses it finely through pizza.
And that’s a language I can speak fluently in.
Gianni said: “The closure of McDonald’s in my town sparked my business.
“In London, I knew there was all types of food except for panzerotti. So, I left my wife, my son of 2 years in Italy three years ago.
“I started completely from scratch without knowing the job. I only learnt because my mother’s cousin is a baker of 50 years.”
While there is a pre-set menu with both non-vegan and vegan options, Gianni encourages customers to order out of the box with his laundry bag of fresh organic ingredients.
When you order, a grid of ingredients stands between you and Gianni, who was uncharacteristically alone today: “I usually work in a team of three of me, my wife, and a third staff member.”
He tirelessly plods the dough before throwing it into a small frier in the back of the cosy stall, vent humming, lines of Mutti-branded Italian tomato cans of looking on.
Ordering the panz-chicken (£7) I asked if cutlery was available – Gianni replied with a resounding but cheeky ‘No’.
And that’s because a perk of panzerotti is being able to hold and eat it in one hand while sipping on a beverage (Gianni recommended wine) in the other.
Panzerotti literally translates as ‘swollen belly’ and it’s difficult for that not to be the outcome of an evening spent at Panzerotto Blues as it was hard not to order a second (or fifth) pizza.
With Mutti tomato sauce, mozzarella, British chicken marinated in ‘Mama’s secret recipe’ and seasoning, the sauce bursts when you take your first bite of the panz-chicken.
Living in Hackney with his wife and now 6-year-old son, Gianni is happy to commute to Tooting each day: “I realised that Tooting is an upcoming and trendy area, so, I said ‘Why not invest?’”
After three years studying economics in Italy and folding into a job in petroleum sales management, he said: “It wasn’t easy to leave a good job with a good salary, but when I got a chance I said, ‘This is the moment’.
“After 12 years of something so sure, to go to something completely unsure – leaving my town, my country. Going to a city with over 10 million people, without knowing the language, the laws, the job, without knowing anything!
“In the beginning, it was very difficult. But step by step – if you have the will – anything is possible.”