Peter Boizot obituary

One night in the early 1960s the businessman Peter Boizot, who has died aged 89, was dining with friends at Hostaria Romana in Soho, central London. In those days, pizza was uncommon – it was seen as a peasant dish – in such a trattoria, but it was on the menu that night. Boizot had fallen in love with pizza as a teenager on holiday in late 1940s Italy, and he said that evening what he had often said, that one day, he would open a pizzeria.

Boizot asked Hostaria Romana’s proprietor why it was so difficult to find pizzas in London. A proper pizza oven was needed, said the proprietor. In 1960, at 29 Wardour Street, he went on, the movie director Mario Zampi had set up a restaurant, called it Pizza Express, and invited film star acquaintances such as Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida. They were unimpressed. They did not, they pointed out, come to London to eat peasant food.

A couple of days later Boizot went to Rome on business. There, dropping by at a pizzeria, he asked where the oven came from. Directed to a Signor Notaro on the outskirts of the city, he took a taxi, and obtained one for £600. Back in London, and employing a young Neapolitan chef, he bought Zampi’s restaurant for £100, taking on debts of £14,000. Struck by the dinginess of other places in Wardour Street, he resolved to brighten up the establishment. Concealed fluorescent lighting went into the ceiling and the place was painted white. Thus, in July 1965, Boizot opened his first Pizza Express. On that first day, with pizza at two shillings (10p) a slice, the takings were only £3. But a British gastronomic revolution had begun.

While other London restaurants and cafes offered pizza, only at the Wardour Street Pizza Express was the menu so single-mindedly focused on it. At first, as in Italian (and Greenwich Village) pizzerias, everybody stood to eat and the product was sold in slices.

But then Boizot found that customers crammed the bar area drinking Coca-Cola. Two tables were built from old Singer sewing machine bases, and more followed. Boizot had wanted to avoid washing up. So he provided plastic knives and forks, which were stuck into the pizzas. The white plastic melted into the molten mozzarella. Metal cutlery arrived.

In 1967, a second Pizza Express, in Coptic Street, south of the British Museum, took over the premises of an old, picturesque dairy. It was elegantly designed by Enzo Apicella, at a time when chic, white trattorias were taking over London. But Pizza Express offered fashionable decor without big bills, and without sowing the etiquette minefields that threatened the generation of diners foraying beyond what were still exotic Asian restaurants.

The chain grew rapidly, predominantly in the south, but the great northern cities were also colonised, as was Jersey. Boizot had effectively provided the successor to the Lyon’s Corner Houses. That chain had provided conservative, inexpensive, edible food in traditional surroundings for the British middle- and lower-middle classes in the interwar and postwar years. But it had been swept away by the 1960s new wave.

For Boizot, of course, his group was not a chain. He called it “a necklace of individual gems”. Having the same repertory of dishes in every restaurant was hardly individual, but did eliminate the nerve-wracking scrutiny of unfamilar menus. The individuality was provided by the choice of sites, and by modern interior design, which was never a feature of white table-clothed Lyon’s.

Born in Peterborough, Peter was the son of Gaston Boizot, an insurance inspector, and his wife, Susannah (nee Culshaw). From early early childhood he was a vegetarian. Educated at King’s school, Peterborough, he was a chorister at the cathedral, and went on to read history at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, now the home to an artificial turf hockey ground bearing his name. He then began his business career, focusing on sales, and working in France, Switzerland and Italy. Then came the fateful dinner.

Boizot was a jazz-lover, and the Dean Street branch – just up the road from the late Hostaria Romana – had its cellar developed as a venue. The Pizza on the Park, in Knightsbridge, became another jazz location, and others followed inside and outside London. In 1986 he founded, and was for a time director of, the Soho jazz festival.

Boizot was managing director (1965-93), chairman (1993-96) and then president of the Pizza Express group. The group meanwhile went on to a stock exchange quotation, and, via franchises, to branches in Paris – as Pizza Milano but with the same menus as in Britain – India, Russia, Cyprus and the Middle East. The brand now has more than 500 restaurants round the world.

Cordial and engaging, Boizot gave the impression that he was still slightly bemused by his success and retained an almost boyish enthusiasm. I met him at Kettner’s, a 19th-century Soho gastronomic landmark and haunt of France’s exiled Empress Eugénie, that had fallen to him in 1980. The menu was familiar, the restoration splendid, it was the recipe for a fortune. That day he was hosting a Liberal Democrat reception – in the two general elections of 1974 he ran as the Liberal candidate in Peterborough.

In 2001, he realised another of his dreams with the Broadway entertainment complex in his home city, which included a cinema and art gallery, on which he spent more than £9m. He held various directorships, chaired the Westminster Chamber of Commerce (1992-95) and was a member of the Royal Academy advisory board (1988-91).

A lifelong hockey fan, he was an honorary vice-president of the Hockey Association from 1990, and he owned and chaired Peterborough FC (1997-2007). He received various honorary degrees and awards, including two from the Italian government and one from Britain for his contribution to the Venice in Peril fund via the surcharged Pizza Veneziana.

His personal favourite was a quattro formaggi with chopped basil leaf and extra green peppers. Yes, of course pizzas were plain and rustic, he said, but then, people do get tired of over-complicated food.

He is survived by his sister, Clementine.

Peter James Boizot, entrepreneur, born November 16 1929; died 5 December 2018

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