Some of us are lucky enough to be privy to a certain Sicilian man’s charm on Iffley Road. Outside the Mad Hatter bar, there is a pizza van named ‘Prima Vista, love at first bite’, where you will interact with the absolute ray of sunshine that is Antonio. A pizza chef for twenty four years and counting, he fell in love with the occupation from the very beginning, despite the sacrifices he had to make as a young boy: “When your friends are at a party or on a beach in summertime, you have to go to work.” But as his father said, “Everybody needs to eat in life, so this job of pizza chef is never going to end,”; it was a surefire way to guarantee stability in his future.
So what kind of pizza does Prima Vista serve? “We do Naples style here, it’s the best in the world. Even though I’m from Sicily, I have to recognise this.” His first teacher was amazing with him, allowing him to flourish into the skilled master that he is today: “He had lots and lots of patience. It’s not easy to find a boss like this, a great teacher […] I took the best from all of them, and that created my style. In this job, you can never stop learning.” Indeed, he says that he still learns from his Neapolitan head chef, Giacomo, who was sitting across from us and chimed in to the interview. Funnily enough, the two of them met in Cambridge, working for different companies, and they both felt a little frustrated due to a lack of identity in their work. Here, their boss provides them with this opportunity. “We can give our touch to everything, so we decide how to cook, what to cook, and what we’re going to give as an experience to our customers.”
The pandemic took a toll on many businesses, but the idea of the Prima Vista van was actually born after the previous wave. Giacomo came to the Mad Hatter six months ago and started the food service through Deliveroo, but their boss started wondering if they could try something different, what with the abundance of students and traffic in Iffley. “The pandemic gave our operational manager the push to try something new… we needed to find something good in that bad period.” Thus, the van opened on the 29th of October, Halloween weekend! This was the start of the chefs’ street food experience, as their distribution prior to this was a Mediterranean menu for the bar, and traditional Neapolitan dishes through Deliveroo. The biggest game-changer is that, now, there is face-to-face interaction between customers and the chefs (well, one of them). “We like Antonio to explain and speak with customers […] that’s what we like: to inform, to tell our story, our tradition. To pass to our people, our customers, what we are about.” The missing thing, a problem now resolved, was human connection.
And what of the ingenious name? I personally adore it, and the thought process behind it lives up to its wholesome nature. “Our operational manager really wanted a specific Italian name, while I was more for an international sound, so we went for Prima Vista. In English, it means ‘at first sight’. I thought, ‘Wait a second, it’s like when you see a girl, prima vista, at first sight’, and then I said ‘It’s love at first bite’. So Prima Vista is the Italian part, and the second part, love at first bite, is what we want to give to the people, to our customers. We decided that upstairs in 25 seconds!” They bestow such confidence in their food due to the labour that they put in; the prep work takes six to seven hours each day, to make fresh street food that appears deceptively simple. That’s why they prefer to keep things small, because if they were to expand, they couldn’t make everything by hand; the quality drops when you turn to machines, and the taste is lost. They cook without recipes, and they balance the taste through unparalleled experience, so the food is as authentic as it can get. As Giacomo aptly put it, “Our job is not to follow, but to create.”
What are their favourite items on the menu? Antonio is crazy for all of the menu, so this was a good, challenging question. He eventually settled on the sausage and friarielli pizza and the arancini al ragù which is, unlike the pizza style, traditionally Sicilian. “I have one customer who told me he would come everyday because he wants to try everything, one food a day. And he kept his promise! He’s almost finished trying all the food!” Giacomo likes street food more, because “you get a real taste of their country”. His thought process is that, if you were to walk on the street and were feeling a bit hungry, you’d see Antonio, and then the arancini and Neapolitan croquettes (Giacomo’s personal favourites). Then for £2.50, you can have a starter that is not from frozen, but was instead made in the morning with all the best products you can find on the market. Sounds pretty ideal, right?
You can sense the consideration for their customers’ enjoyment, but above all, you can taste the most important ingredient: love. “If you don’t do it with love, a good product will never come. So there’s a lot of love behind it, a lot of hours, a lot of experience.” When asked about their favourite part of the job, they both say that the preparation is the best part, the love part. Antonio specifically loves making the dough, making it consistently perfect, day in day out, and also chopping. “I love using the knife. I’ve cut myself many times, but now I speak to the knife as if it’s my brother.” Giacomo is of the belief that, when you prepare something, “it’s like an artist making paint. You love the process of it, and when you have the final product, it’s like your baby. Before your baby is born, you love the nine months before.” Their passion and pure adoration for their careers is inspiring, and you understand the pride that they hold. “You feel like a star when you see people’s faces as they eat your food,” says Antonio. Their driving force is the satisfaction they gain from seeing other people’s joy, brought upon by their creations. It’s a cycle as wonderful as the pizza they make, and rest assured, their food is delicious. Go and experience Antonio’s charm if you don’t believe me.