You know a place is good when you’re still talking about it days later.
We went to Purezza, a plant-based Italian style restaurant in St James’ Street, Brighton with open minds ‘cos we’re not vegan. And boy were our minds opened!
Purezza (which means ‘purity’ in Italian) was established in 2015 as the UK’s first vegan pizza restaurant. Their aim is not just to recreate Italian classics using cruelty-free ingredients but to surpass them.
It’s a small, uncluttered, café-style restaurant with comfy bench seats, live plants, beige-and-cream décor and a beautiful flaming oven dominating the open kitchen area. It has clearly built up a local and loyal following and does a brisk trade in takeaways and deliveries. Its lunchtime special offer – starter, small pizza and a drink for £10 – is attractive for nearby office workers.
Offering vegetarian options, tasty but without the meat, is common practice but it’s the cheese-rich dishes of Italy – the melting mozzarella, the silky smooth bechamel, the ricotta-oozing calzone – that seem impossible to match.
Pork Belly and I really love cheese – even though I am restricted to goat and sheep varieties – and in all our food explorations to date we have never found a vegan cheese which sets our palates alight.
We’d heard that Purezza had spent two years perfecting their own entirely plant-based alternatives so our choice of starter was a foregone conclusion – the artisan cashew-based cheeseboard.
The texture of each cheese was broadly similar, smooth and dense – with the exception of the parmesan style – and the flavours were astounding.
Fermented for around ten days each cheese is infused with an unusual combination – smoked paprika and chilli, acai and apricot, sun-dried tomato and herbs, goji and pink peppercorns and (my absolute favourite) walnut and balsamic vinegar. Served on a wooden board with two dips and a small bunch of palate-clearing grapes, it tempted the eye as well as the taste-buds. I was dubious about matching the cheese with a fresh berry compote or agave syrup, but the fusion of sweet and savoury worked very well.
Pork Belly ordered the focaccia strips with hummus, pesto and a beet and onion dip. The pesto was freshly made (it arrived bright green and slowly darkened throughout the course of the meal), the hummus smooth and creamy and the caramelised beet and onion dip refreshing. But he couldn’t keep his eyes (or hands) off my cheeseboard. And to be honest there really is enough to share.
For our mains we both chose pizza – although there are burgers, pasta and salad dishes available. Pork Belly selected the Fumosa – a smoky tomato base with mushrooms, beet and fried tofu topped with barbecue sauce.
I went for a calzone to try their vegan ricotta and I have to admit the size defeated me! The mozzarella, made from chick peas, rice and olive oil, melted perfectly on top and the ricotta inside was smooth and creamy. Being plant-based these cheeses are lower in fat and calories than their dairy alternatives so in theory you can eat more. In practice I was as stuffed as my calzone. The pea pancetta added both texture and taste.
The sourdough pizza bases are light and beautifully cooked. They offer a hemp-based version, which has less gluten than traditional doughs, and a fully gluten-free option. The hemp base is excellent – slightly herby in flavour and crisply crunchy where it catches in the wood-fired oven.
At this stage it became clear we really didn’t have room for a dessert, but in the interests of research and a fair review, we had to take the hit (we hope you appreciate our sacrifice on your behalf).
Our waitress Martina, who is Italian, told us that the English really like the Oreo cookie pizza so Pork Belly felt obliged to uphold that tradition. It was sweet and the chocolate sauce was smooth and hazelnutty, but it defeated him and we had to ask for a box to take the rest away (where hungry students home for the holidays, devoured it!)
I chose the classic Italian dessert tiramisu. Served in a cute kilner jar with a medjool date base the vegan mascarpone cream topping was to die for – silky smooth, just sweet enough without being overpowering and light on the stomach. Pork Belly’s not a fan of dates but kept stealing what he insisted on calling the “stuff” and I had to keep fending him off with my spoon!
To drink I kept it simple with a sparkling water but Pork Belly tried the Hello Sunshine smoothie – turmeric, almond milk, banana, ginger, cinnamon and chai seeds. Served in a jar with a handle it had a rustic look which was a bit basic. Maybe it needs one of those little umbrellas or some foliage. It took a little time for the flavours to infuse but once they had it was delightfully smooth with a lingering hint of ginger and spice.
The coffee was medium bodied and slightly fruity but served in handle-less mugs which is disconcerting if, like me, you like to slurp it while it’s piping hot. I improvised using the saucer it came on, while Pork Belly did what he always does with coffee – let it go cold.
Our overall impression? A friendly and inclusive Italian-style restaurant serving far-from-ordinary pizzas. I’d definitely bring a group of friends here, confident that there’d be something on the menu for all but the most die-hard carnivore. I’d also happily drop by for a mug of coffee and a vegan tiramisu any time.
And since Pork Belly fell in love with the “stuff”, how about serving it with a warm, sweet, cinnamon dough, in strips, like focaccia? Perfect for sharing.
More about Purezza
Purezza is open from midday seven days a week. Prices in 2017 for starters range from £5 to £8.50 (for the cheeseboard which could easily be shared).
Pizzas are from £5 to £12.50 and other dishes are around the £10 mark. There are plenty of raw food options too and healthy salads.
Desserts range in price from £3.85 to £8.50 (if you can really manage a chocolate calzone – oof!)
They also offer a 10% discount for students and NHS staff.
Disclaimer: We were invited to eat at Purezza free of charge to give our honest opinion. The team were attentive and friendly but gave us no special treatment.