Karachi has come a long way from the thick crust pizzas that used to be the hallmark of the 90’s, and the evolving consumer palate is asking for more options.
This has presented a unique opportunity for restaurants and cafes as they carve out a niche for themselves by offering artisan pizzas with premium ingredients and specialty flavours other than the ol' "chicken fajita" and "chicken tikka".
I decided to try out pizzas at four popular upscale eateries in Karachi – Xanders, Pantry, Espresso and Del Frio to decide which one offers the best variety in town.
Incorporating exotic flavours with an emphasis on fresh ingredients, Xander’s is considered to have one of the best pizzas in town.
Their serious attitude towards an authentic pizza can be seen in the traditional brick oven situated in the middle of the café, providing that distinctive charred and smoky flavour.
Xanders has a diverse variety of options.There’s the basic "Margherita & Chicken Jalapeño" for people who want simple traditional flavours. Then there are more exotic flavours like Blue Cheese, and the famous "Xanders Goat Cheese & Fig Pizza", for the more adventurous clientele.
We decided to order the "Spicy Peppercorn Salami" and the "Pesto with Chicken". The waiter at Xanders was well-versed in the menu and was quick to point out that we might not like the anchovies in the pesto pizza, and could add chicken as an alternate.
Deciding to go ahead with his advice, we ordered the chicken version.
Our order arrived in about 25 minutes.
|Spicy Peppercorn Salami. – Photo by author|
Both pizzas had a light thin crust with just the right base to toppings ratio. The "Pepperoni Salami" was a meat fest with a fresh tomato sauce and a liberal helping of salami slices.
The "Pesto with Chicken" is a good alternative for people who don’t like tomato sauce, and while the grilled chicken was good, the star was the sauce and sun-dried tomatoes.
The price for pizzas at Xanders ranges from Rs620 for the basic Margherita to Rs1,000 for the exotic variations (for e.g. Norwegian salmon). The serving size was pretty good, with one pizza being just about enough for two people.
The total meal for two including drinks (about Rs200), as well as a starter (Rs400) costs around Rs1,600 (excluding tax), which is quite affordable considering Xanders is an upscale eatery.
Pantry is another upscale café known for its flatbread style thin-crust pizzas.
Though Pantry has less variety than Xanders, the options are still varied and follow their theme of comfort food with influences from different countries. There’s the Mexican "Tex-Mex" pizza, a traditional "Italian Margherita" and a "Napoletana", utilising fresh buffalo mozzarella. Unfortunately, the problem with using artisanal ingredients is their availability – we were unable to order the Napoletana due to the unavailability of fresh cheese.
Instead, we ordered the "Tex-Mex" as the requisite chicken flavour, and the "Turkey" flatbread.
|"Tex-Mex" pizza. – Photo by author|
The flatbreads were served in about 20 minutes, with a beautifully infused chilli oil and red chilli flakes.
The "Tex-Mex" came with a sour cream dip and salsa.
The crust of both flatbreads was thin and crisp with a crackly edge that is the hallmark of a properly baked thin crust pizza. One unique benefit of the rectangular flatbread is that it gives you more options to select the edge pieces, which I personally loved munching on at the end of the meal.
The sour cream dip was a nice accompaniment to the "Tex-Mex", though the fresh salsa did not make sense as the pizza already had fresh vegetables.
The "Turkey" flatbread was an absolute delight with crispy turkey bacon and jalapeños, which added a spicy kick to the flavour.
The price for flatbreads at Pantry ranges from Rs610 for the basic Margherita to about Rs900 for the exotic varieties (Turkey & Buffalo Shrimp).
The serving size was good, with one flatbread being enough for two people. The total meal for two including drinks (about Rs200) and a starter (Rs500) would cost around Rs1,650 (excluding tax), which is almost the same as Xanders.
Espresso has been an established café on the Karachi dining scene for quite some time, known for its breakfast, sandwiches and coffee.
Designed for snacking and sharing, Espresso offers both medium and large size pizzas, catering to small and large groups. Compared to the other cafes, Espresso offers traditional flavours like the basic Margherita and four cheese, two variations of beef pepperoni and three flavours of chicken (fajita, buffalo and sausage).
While Espresso may not have exotic ingredients like goat cheese and salmon, it has options that are family favourites and appeal to the majority of diners.
The two pizzas we tried were the "Four Cheese" and the "Buffalo Chicken".
|Four Cheese Pizza. – Photo by author|
Compared to the other two café’s, the pizza crust at Espresso was doughy, plus there was a lot of tomato sauce leading to a softer crust. We preferred the fresh marinara sauce and the basil in the buffalo chicken pizza over the four cheese pizza. While I enjoyed the overall flavour, my friend felt it was a bit too greasy due to the melted cheese mixing with the copious amounts of tomato sauce.
|Buffalo Chicken. – Photo by author|
The medium pizza at Espresso is smaller than what is served at Xanders and Espresso; and three pizzas would be enough for two people (1-2 slices leftover). The medium pizza is priced at Rs625, whereas the the large one, which is suited for two people, is priced at Rs950. So, a meal for two people with drinks (Rs200 each) and a starter (Rs400) will cost around Rs1,500.
With one branch being located at Sindhi Muslim, Del Frio has the advantage of catering to diners in all parts of the city.
Featuring an array of desserts and ice-creams on the menu and loud pop music in the background, it’s a social hangout café that focuses on a budget conscious younger clientele. Their pizzas are consequently low-priced and options are limited to the basics – Margherita, Chicken Tikka, Hot & Spicy and Pepperoni.
We ordered the "Hot & Spicy" (with chicken) and "Pepperoni", which were served in about 45 minutes, instead of the 25 minutes promised by the waiter.
The "Hot & Spicy" was definitely not for the faint hearted, as it was covered in red chilli flakes that overwhelmed all the other ingredients.
|Hot & Spicy. – Photo by author|
The "Pepperoni" pizza had a good meat to cheese ratio, but I felt that the pepperoni was just a bit tougher than that offered at the other upscale restaurants.
|Pepperoni Pizza. – Photo by author|
The range of pizzas at Del Frio are between Rs450 to Rs560 with one pizza being just enough for one person. So a meal for two people with two pizzas, drinks (Rs200) and a starter (Rs350) would cost about Rs1,750 (excluding tax)
Overall, I would rate Xanders and Pantry as generally tied at number one because they offer an authentic version of the thin crust wood oven style pizza with an innovative menu at a reasonable value for money. If I had to choose a favourite, it would be Pantry because I loved the crisp flatbread.
Espresso offers a more traditional pizza and caters to diners who don’t want to experiment or are used to the local thick-crust pizzas.
For Del Frio I can only offer advice: if it wants to include pizza as one of its selling points, then it needs to improve its offerings with regards to taste and menu selection to compete with the other cafes that currently excel in the niche thin-crust segment.
Kiran Afzal is a researcher by profession, who enjoys food blogging and reading on the side.