Its lunchtime on Thursday and the scales are tipped slightly in favour of patrons over the enthusiastic staff at this extravagant suburban pizzeria.
Boasting a trio of ovens wood-fired, twin deck and conveyor belt a fabulous industrial fit-out and a prime Hawthorn East location, youd expect three-month-old Firechief to be a little more crowded. Its the sort of place and space that inner-east residents would be likely to embrace, but perhaps more in groups, of an evening.
Mathis (ex-Taxi, SOS, 100 Mile Café) has stepped back into the industry with a flourish after five years away.
He sent head chef Gabriel Espinoza and head pizza chef Daniel Barrese to Naples to attain accreditation from Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana an international body established to protect the heritage and tradition of the Neapolitan pizza.
There are only three other accredited chefs in Australia (one at 400 gradi in Brunswick) and about 370 in the world permitted to use the DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta, or controlled designation of origin) certification.
Barrese (ex-Ladro) says that even after 15 years of making pizza there were still things an experienced pizzaiolo could learn. Sure, Neapolitans are particular about their pizzas, but the passion is something they live with every day. A lot of it is about the people themselves and how a son learns the traditions of his father, and a father learns them from his own father, he says.
Pizza draws myriad opinions and passionate debate: thick crust, thin crust, hand-stretched, stone-crisped or pan-crisped, heavy topping, thin topping.
The boys at Firechief have all bases covered. Their three Italian-made ovens a Valoriani volcanic-clay wood-fired number, a Moretti twin-deck, stone-based model and a modern conveyor-belt oven each cooks at different rates and temperatures.
Select your pizza according to its cooking method. There are eight varieties from the Valoriani, cooked at 400 degrees for 90 seconds, 10 from the Moretti, at 360 degrees for four minutes, and 10 conveyor-belt choices, cooked at 340 degrees for six minutes. Barrese says that all bases are made with the same dough recipe, which, according to the DOP tradition, comprises 00-flour, yeast, salt, purified water and no additives.
We ordered one pizza from the wood-fired oven and one from the Moretti, which was more than enough at lunchtime. Besides, the conveyor oven list offered more run-of-the-mill choices such as Hawaiian, Mexicana and Aussie, likely to please children and suburban takeaway pizza fans.
From the Moretti oven, our prawn and pancetta pizza was covered with a cloud of fior di latte (white mozzarella) capped with tailed translucent whorls of tiger prawns and crisp, auburn curls of pancetta, topped with a mojo dressing (onion, garlic, cumin, oregano, salt, pepper, orange and lemon juice) and a tangle of rocket. Its thin base was airy and delicately puffed, with just enough chew to give it texture, particularly around the edges. Close enough to pizza perfection for me.
Could a wood-fired DOP pizza be any better?
From a list that included margherita, marinara-vera, sorrentina, romana and friarielli (pork sausage), we chose the sopressa pizza. Its San Marzano tomato base was topped with a thin layer of mild casalingo salami, a generous handful of basil leaves and a whiff of chilli. The base was equally thin but, flattened by the moisture of the tomatoes, didnt have quite the same air and lift as the Moretti oven pizza. Its topping was divine and its outer edges were chewy and slightly charry, but it was a little drier than our first pizza and a few mouthfuls were quite scorched, ensuring preference for the first pizza.
There are other offerings on the menu besides pizza, including an excellent companion salad of heirloom and oxheart tomatoes, fior di latte, basil, seeded cucumbers.
For starters theres an antipasto platter or grilled sardines on toast with harissa, and mains include a few pasta dishes, crumbed pork cutlet and crispy-skin snapper. All bound to keep everyone in the family happy on a busy Friday night.
169 Camberwell Road, Hawthorn East
Cuisine Italian Head chef Gabriel EspinozaPrices Salads $11-$24; non-pizza $12.90-$28.90; pizza $12.50-$25.90 Open Noon-late daily Phone 9831 1700
The Verdict Put on your list
The name Firechief refers to the taming of the wood-fired pizza stove. The venue isnt a renovated fire station, but it feels like one. There are high ceilings, industrial fittings and truck-sized front windows. Yellow-painted metal beams frame the room, which has red, white and yellow floor tiles and whipped-cream paint. Recycled timber panels adorn the walls and mismatched rectangles wrap around the front counter. Wooden rolling pins are pegs for a quirky coat rack, but eyes eventually turn to the huge timber-
and-brass light fitting that hangs on low ropes in the centre of the room.