Peter Boizot, Founder of the PizzaExpress Chain, Dies at 89

Peter Boizot, who founded the British restaurant chain PizzaExpress, helping to shape the country’s casual dining scene, died on Dec. 5 in Peterborough, England. He was 89.

His death was confirmed by his sister and only immediate survivor, Clementine Allen.

There were few indications in Mr. Boizot’s youth that he would have a career as a restaurateur. He grew up on a diet of baked beans, chips and tomato soup, having eschewed meat, and his mother’s cooking, since he found out at age 5 where beef came from.

He first tasted pizza in December 1948 in Florence, Italy, where he lived for three months while working as an au pair.

In his memoir, “Mr. Pizza and All That Jazz” (2016), he wrote of having watched a pizza maker through a window tossing dough, a process that looked to him like a “dance.” Then he took a bite.

“It was the most appetizing thing I had ever had before,” Mr. Boizot (BOY-zoh) wrote. “In the six decades since, I must have enjoyed thousands of pizzas, but I still remember that first one.”

The death of Mr. Boizot’s father in 1964 prompted him to end his travels and return to England to be nearer his mother. He moved to the Soho neighborhood of London — where, to his dismay, there were no good pizzerias.

So he procured a pizza oven from Naples, found a mozzarella maker in England and bought an ailing restaurant called PizzaExpress, which had only an electric oven, from the widow of a film director. He paid £10 for the restaurant — the equivalent of about £162, or a little more than $200, in today’s money — and assumed £14,000 in debt.

When he opened in 1965, the slices were square and served on wax paper. Then, following the advice of a friend, he started making circular pizzas and providing cutlery.

The menu had 10 options for toppings, one with meat; Mr. Boizot, not wanting to risk the loss of business, had put his own revulsion aside and added sausage, which he selected by tasting. But he drew the line at eggs on a Fiorentina pizza.

“I didn’t want eggs on my menu — they look silly on a pizza, the smell is atrocious, and who wants a fetus for their tea?” he explained in his book, using a British term for meal.

He later began importing Peroni Nastro Azzurro beer and wine from the Frescobaldi family, whom he had met at a beach when he accidentally tripped over one of their children.

Mr. Boizot turned the PizzaExpress on Dean Street in London into a jazz club. The singer Gregory Porter performed there in 2011.CreditAndy Sheppard/Redferns, via Getty Images

In 1967 he opened a second location near the British Museum, enlisting the designer Enzo Apicella. The layout of this restaurant, with an open kitchen, minimalist décor and a red counter snaking around the room, became a template as the chain expanded, spawning franchises across the country and then the world. There are now more than 600 restaurants in 13 countries in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

He turned one of them, on Dean Street in London, into a jazz club.

He also bought Kettner’s Townhouse, a favorite haunt of celebrities, and started the Soho Jazz Festival, which ran for 16 years until 2002.

Mr. Boizot “revolutionized the U.K. restaurant scene,” PizzaExpress said in a statement, “forever bringing casual dining to the high street.”

Peter James Boizot was born on Nov. 16, 1929, in Peterborough to Gaston and Susannah (Culshaw) Boizot. His mother was a homemaker, his father an insurance inspector. He attended the King’s School in Peterborough on a choral scholarship and developed a love for grass hockey, which he continued to play for the rest of his life.

After finishing his national service in Egypt and earning a history degree at Cambridge University, Mr. Boizot worked as a traveling toy salesman in Britain and then joined the crew of a ship that sailed regularly to Paris, where he explored the jazz scene.

In his mid-20s he hitchhiked to Rome, where he sold trinkets from a handcart, including what he said were horseshoes belonging to Julius Caesar. The souvenirs caught the attention of some Associated Press journalists, who wrote an article about the dubious origins of the footwear — and Mr. Boizot ended up being hired as a clerk in the Associated Press newsroom. Before long, he set off for Frankfurt to work for a book distributor, traveling around Europe to sell books to soldiers at American Army bases.

After his success with PizzaExpress, Mr. Boizot focused his efforts on rejuvenating Peterborough, starting with the renovation of a hotel by the city’s railway station. He liked the place so much that he moved in, along with two cats, Moët and Chandon. He also bought a new roof for Peterborough Cathedral and purchased a hockey pitch for his alma mater.

A series of unprofitable ventures followed, including a magazine, an arts center, a champagne called Boizot and bottled water called Pierre Boizeau. He funneled £1 million of his own money each year into the soccer club Peterborough United, which he once owned.

Even in his 80s, he considered starting another venture: a chain of vegetarian restaurants.

As he noted in his book, “I make decisions with my gut and, fortunately for me, my gut has been good to me over the years.”

Mr. Boizot led two unsuccessful bids for office as a member of the Liberal Party and was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 1986, in recognition of his political and public service. He was also made a knight in Italy for raising more than two million pounds for the Venice in Peril Fund through sales of the Veneziana pizza at his restaurants.

In 1993, Mr. Boizot sold PizzaExpress, garnering about £35 million — the equivalent of about £58 million, or $73 million, in 2018. He remained president until his death.

Although he was proud of his success, he also admitted to some insecurity. He said that he never opened a PizzaExpress in Peterborough because it had a strong Italian population and he feared those diners would think his dishes were not up to scratch.

“Although I was proud of the food we made,” he wrote, “I never ate a pizza in a PizzaExpress restaurant that was as good as a pizza I ate in Italy.”

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