Our waiter’s concern is palpable. We’re irritatingly slow to order and he wants to help us. But we’ve asked for more time. He’s pacing.
It’s the menu. It’s not especially large, but there’s a lot of choice and a bit of repetition that’s confusing. Some of the daily specials are repeated on the main menu (apparently for the benefit of regulars); the pizzas all sound tempting, but some seem similar and pasta dishes vie for attention.
There’s no mystery in the restaurant’s name – 400 Gradi (400 degrees) is the ideal heat at which pizza should be cooked.
“It should be cooked quickly, just for 90 seconds, so it is light as air. And it should arrive on the table in minutes,” says owner Johnny Di Francesco.
Around the brightly lit, glossy room, everyone seems to be eating the house specialty. It arrives on a heavy, dark-timber board, high of outside crust and filled to its plump perimeter.
Di Francesco is Victoria’s first member of the Verace Pizza Napoletana Association – a Naples-based international body established to protect the heritage and tradition of the Napoletana pizza. There are only two accredited chefs in Australian and just 360 in the world.
Di Francesco has been making pizza since he was 12. He opened his first restaurant in Moonee Ponds, aged 19. He established Panic Pizza, a franchise chain with seven outlets, a few years later, and opened 400 Gradi in 2008.
His Naples roots and the association drew him back to Italy last year. “I wanted to learn more about my family’s traditions and see why it is that the people of Naples are so passionate about their pizza. What I learnt was amazing,” he says.
As part of his accreditation, Di Francesco visited the producers of the tomatoes, the fior di latte (buffalo-milk cheese), the olive oil and the flour mills to appreciate their commitment to quality.
The distinguishing characteristic of Napoli pizza, he says, is the combination of wood-fired oven, 400-degree cooking temperature and the dough-making process.
“It’s a completely natural base,” says Di Francesco. “There are no additives, no eggs, milk or sugar. The only ingredients are yeast, flour, salt and water. “
Di Francesco imports most of his ingredients, including the canned San Marzano tomatoes, and treats the water he uses to ensure it is as pure as possible.
Pizza 400 – a house specialty.
In May, he closed 400gradi for a three-week renovation, moving into the adjoining building and adding 80 seats and a smart, well-equipped central kitchen.
So we’re here to try the pizza. And the pizza aficionado with me is looking at only that part of the menu. But I’m wavering.
We select stuffed mushrooms; a trio that arrives on a rectangular white plate, dressed with rocket. The plump mushrooms are topped with a delicate mushroom-and-herb farce and scattered with a touch of parmesan. The top is crisp, the mushrooms moist.
Next, a single skewer with two plump prawns and a matching pair of scallops grilled to perfection. They are accompanied by a magic sauce, I assume made with those San Marzano tomatoes. Magic because it disappears so fast.
After much pizza prevaricating, we choose the Toscana with fior di latte, funghi, goat’s cheese and rocket. It’s fabulous, not for the thin-crust brigade, but delicate, airy and moist. The topping makes the centre soft, but the just-chewy outer is a good foil.
Di Francesco brought in Ivan Dell’rba as his head chef earlier this year to expand the menu. Dell’rba worked in Greece for 18 years, spent many years in Naples, and lived in Germany, Di Francesco says.
“I think he learnt patience in Germany,” he says. “I love this man. He’s been with me for six months and I’ve never seen his pulse rise. He is a master when it comes to pasta and seafood.”
The yabby linguine is excellent; simple, delicate flavours and a finely textured house-made pasta. It’s topped with two halved yabbies, still in their shells, and surrounded by copious sauce and studded with cherry tomatoes.
Our patient waiter, Renzo, steered us through the wine menu, which is predominantly Italian and divided into regions, but with a select list of Australian and French wines and a reasonable selection by the glass.
And although we’ve skipped the dolci list, he doesn’t seem disappointed. It’s been a job well done.
Goat’s cheese and rocket pizza
Relaunched to bigger space, and with the addition of seafood delivered under skilled hands, the appeal of this quality pizza restaurant has been enhanced. The staff seems considerate and observant and the space is elegant and relaxed. An understanding of the restaurant’s Naples allegiance, either provided on the menu or delivered by wait staff, would add to its undoubted appeal.
99 Lygon Street, Brunswick
Phone \ 9380 2320
Chef \ Johnny Di Francesco
Prices \ Starters $9.50-$18.50; pizzas $17.50-$22.50; mains $17.50-$26.50; desserts $12.50-$13.50
Open \ Wednesday-Sunday 6-11pm
Big glass windows and dark surfaces create a twinkling night-time ambience at 400gradi in its broad corner position on Lygon Street. Pavement diners grab a quick bite under the wide verandah; bigger groups inside last the distance. There’s a central kitchen that energises the room and modern, clean lines in the 150-seat layout. Timber bistro chairs, heavily hewn deep redwood on tables and engraved boards that deliver pizza and starters add a rustic edge, while the occasional cloth-covered table and quality stemware provide panache. Despite the size of the space and the polished concrete floors, noise is a pleasant hum on a midweek night.