In the first part of a series of articles on past and present Positano residents and local characters, the Sirenuse Journal shines a spotlight on the remarkable Giuseppe Mascoli, better known as Peppe. A positanese born and bred, the talented Mascoli went against the flow, migrating from the sunny Costiera to the cold and rainy north to complete a masters degree and subsequently take up a post as assistant lecturer at the London School of Economics.
But Mascoli is a committed foodie, wine lover and cultured bon viveur, and it was not long before he had moved into London’s vibrant wining and dining scene. He began by importing wine, then, in 2002, opened a private fine-dining and fine-drinking club called Blacks in a Georgian-era house in Soho. Six years later came Peppe’s most audacious coup, when he bought up (for a paltry £15,000) a pizzeria in Brixton’s covered market, which was not somewhere most well-heeled Londoners even set foot back in those days.
Calling it Franco Manca (‘Franco’s Gone Away’) in affectionate tribute to the previous owner, Mascoli set about introducing Londoners to real Italian pizza, not the pale imitation they were used to. There is an abiding myth that the world of Italian and Neapolitan pizza is eternal and unchanging – but Mascoli knew that certain pioneering pizzaioli, influenced by the Slow Food movement, had been experimenting with healthier flour mixes, slower dough-rising times and toppings made from carefully-sourced organic ingredients, and he was convinced that a London pizzeria that staked its reputation on an obsessive attention to quality could be a success.
He was right. Today, Franco Manca has six branches across London, and among its investors, it can count a former Pizza Express executive, who was persuaded to jump ship by the excellence of Mascoli’s product. Franco Manca’s pizza is made from sourdough ‘borrowed’ from a legendary batch that has been tended on the island of Ischia for at least three centuries and may even date back to the Ancient Romans. The dough is left to rise for 24 hours and then baked in a wood-burning brick oven made by Mastro Ciccio, a master artisan from Naples. The other ingredients are just as painstakingly sourced, beginning with organic fior di latte cheese made exclusively for Franco Manca in Somerset with the help of a cheese-maker from Molise, Albino Scalzitti. Franco Manca also salts its own ham, and has its own mushroom supplier, a Pole who knows where to find delicious ceps and other wild species in English woods.
Not content with cornering the London market in quality pizza, Mascoli also recently joined forces with French wine importer Guillaume Aubert to launch Aubert & Mascoli, a niche importer of organic and natural wines made by a series of under-the-radar Italian and French producers, together with selected organic produce, from Sicilian olive oil to Perigord verjus. He also publishes The Spanner, a caustic cultural and political journal that advertises itself as “a provocative newspaper in the mould of those read, argued and drafted around the punch bowls and in the coffee houses of Georgian London”. Oh, and he has a recipe book out – Franco Manca: Artisan Pizza to Make Perfectly at Home, co-authored with his companion and muse, South African artist Bridget Hugo.
Though he’s become something of a culinary and cultural impresario in the UK, Peppe Mascoli still likes to spend as much time as possible in the Positano villa, not far from the Chiesa Nuova, that belonged to his great-grandfather. And he’s clearly in his element here. This is a man was once described in a British newspaper interview as “a disconcerting combination of playboy and intellectual”. The writer had obviously never been to Positano, where this particular combination has a long and illustrious history.