Peter Boizot, who founded the international restaurant chain PizzaExpress, beginning in Britain, where he helped 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 — after he found out at age 5 where beef came from.
He first tasted pizza in 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), Mr. Boizot recalled watching a pizza maker through a window tossing dough as if the movements were a “dance.” Then he took a bite.
“It was the most appetizing thing I had ever had before,” Mr. Boizot (pronounced 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 his father in 1964 prompted Mr. Boizot 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 from the widow of a film director. It had only one oven, an electric one. 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 took over the business, in 1965, the pizza slices were square and served on wax paper. A friend, however, advised him to start making round pizzas and provide cutlery, and so he did. And not wanting to risk the loss of business, he put aside his own revulsion and added meat — sausage — as one of 10 pizza toppings on the menu. 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.
Mr. Boizot 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.
He opened a second location in 1967, 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.
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
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 the University of Cambridge, 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; Mr. Boizot ended up being hired as a clerk in the A.P. newsroom.
Before long, he set off for Frankfurt to work for a book distributor there and was soon traveling around Europe selling books to soldiers at American Army bases.
After his success with PizzaExpress, Mr. Boizot focused on rejuvenating Peterborough, about 75 miles north of London, starting by renovating a hotel near the railway station. He liked the hotel 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 St. Catharine’s College, his alma mater at Cambridge.
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 £2 million for the Venice in Peril Fund through sales of the Veneziana pizza at his restaurants.
Mr. Boizot sold PizzaExpress in 1993, garnering about £35 million, the equivalent of about £58 million, or $73 million, today. He remained its president until his death.
For all his success, Mr. Boizot admitted to some insecurity. He said he had never opened a PizzaExpress in Peterborough because the city had many residents with Italian roots, and he feared those diners would think that 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.”