It takes 24 hours to fly from here to Naples – the same amount of time it takes to prove the dough for a classic pizza Napoletana. Some may put this down to coincidence but, considering Melbourne’s recent winning streak in the global pizza stakes, you could be forgiven for wondering if there’s something in our water or if it’s something less tangible – a deep desire to prove ourselves, perhaps.
Johnny Di Francesco of 400 Gradi stamped Melbourne’s status as a global pizza force when his margherita took out top honours at the World Pizza Championships (Campionato Mondiale Della Pizza) in Parma, Italy in 2014.
Then, early this year, Silvio Serpa of Preston’s Pizzaly was named Australia’s best pizza maker at the same championships. And just last month, Andrea Cozzolino from Zero 95 in Doncaster East took out the coveted Caputo Cup in the birthplace of pizza, Naples, after pitting his margherita against hundreds of the world’s best.
There’s no doubt that when it comes to pizza, we punch well above our weight – perhaps not so surprising in a state where Italian is the second most commonly spoken language and where the bonds to Italian food and culture run deep.
By the time Johnny Di Francesco started making margheritas at 400 Gradi in Brunswick East in 2008, Melbourne was in the throes of “Il Ritorno” – The Return – to the pizzas of the ’60s and ’70s, which were seemingly delivered fresh off the boat by Italian emigres.
Back then, they had been “all Italian and pretty good” recalls Rita Erlich, food writer and former editor of The Age Good Food Guide. “The heavy gloopy stuff came later on”, she says.
It was only with the rise of fast food and home deliveries, that our pizza expectations mutated into the kind of cartoonish over-sized crackers you’d see in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – American-style, big as the moon, and awash with packet cheese and every topping you could imagine.
It seemed like we were doomed to suffer the Supreme injustice forever, “And then the wheel was rediscovered,” says Rita. Ladro, Gertrude Street’s first “serious” restaurant, became the first pizza place to garner a hat in the Good Food Guide, which named it Best New Restaurant in the 2005 edition.
“It certainly raised a few eyebrows, but they took pizza to a whole new level,” says John Lethlean. “I can still remember how good it was. They didn’t worry about making pizza round. It was all wonky shapes and wood-fired flavour”.
The plaudits proved controversial but diners paid no heed to the critics. Soon a new breed of high quality, authentic pizza joints such as Pizza Meine Liebe, Mr Wolf and I Carusi started sprouting all over town, offering simpler toppings, classic flavour combinations and sides of salad. They trained us to expect pizza to be thin-based, slightly chewy and cooked through.
What we came to know as “proper pizza” turned out to be but one interpretation. As with all Italian food, differences of opinion abound – and each region is fiercely loyal to their own interpretation. Comparing Neapolitan to Roman is like chalk to cheese. Unlike classic Roman-style pizzas that are flat and firm, the Neapolitan pizza is soft and elastic so you have to fold it over itself to eat, or slice it with a knife and fork.
For Johnny Di Francesco, this posed a problem. “Customers found the Neapolitan style challenging at first,” he says. “They’d send it back because they didn’t think it was cooked.”
Thus began Johnny’s mission to retrain the habits of punters and pizzaiolos, and encourage us to come around to the softer, soupier Pizza Napoletana. In his role as Australasian Principal of the Verace Pizza Napoletana association (basically Italian for, “too legit to quit”) he has coached some of Melbourne’s best pizza makers, many of whom I visit while trawling around town on my search for the city’s finest.
Although they still get the odd pizza sent back to the kitchen, the pizzaiolo community are spearheading an international pizza revolution.
For Melbourne’s newest Neapolitan champion, Andrea Cozzolino, it all comes down to passion. “For me, cooking pizza is not a job. It is a style of life. You do not stand 10, 12 hours a day in front of a pizza oven unless you love it.”
But it’s not just his love for the craft that gave him the win over 700 entrants from around the world at this year’s Caputo Cup.
Ahead of the contest, the 25-year-old travelled the breadth of Naples, looking for the best fior di latte mozzarella and freshest San Marzano tomatoes (here’s a tip – if your pizza place uses S. Marzano tomatoes, they probably know what they’re doing).
“The ingredients for a margherita are simple so you cannot hide behind them but you can also use this to advantage,” says Andrea.
“In Australia, we use the same ingredients, we cook it in the traditional style and for some people they think it is too soft, not cooked. But this way you can taste all of the ingredients and if you cook it any further you lose the flavour.”
Micheluccio “Mick” Carrafa of Pizzaiolo Micheluccio in Camberwell says making the perfect pizza is not just about sourcing the right ingredients – it’s knowing what to do with them. “You can’t blitz the tomatoes, you have to squeeze them by hand,” he says. “The mozzarella, the dough, it’s all done by hand.”
He says authentic Neapolitan pizza relies on a sourdough base. “You have to feed it and look after it – that’s what gives pizza Napoletana its flavour and texture,” he says. He inherited his now 35-year-old sourdough starter from his nonna Rachele and the dough has taken on a life of its own, growing and changing with time and dedication.
Across town in Preston, Silvio Serpa is happily getting ready for another night of service at Pizzaly. “He’s 74, he should be at home wearing ugg boots with his feet up,” says his wife and business partner, Anna. “He came out of retirement to make pizza because he just loves it.”
It’s no surprise these pizzaiolos are so passionate about what they do. Perhaps with so much distance between our shores and the pebbled beaches of Naples, absence has made the heart grow fonder.
Away from the ease of wandering down the street for a bag of Caputo flour, our pizzaiolos are pushing themselves harder, turning the wheels of revolution here and abroad.
Where to get Melbourne’s best:
Take one step into this bustling pizzeria and you know you’ve come to the right place for a fine family feed. This place is packed so prepare to sit elbow to elbow, warmed by the glow of the double pizza ovens.
For kinfolk not in the mood for dough in the round, there’s plenty of pasta on the menu. But I would strongly recommend at least ordering the Paesana: taleggio and buffalo mozzarella cheese, potato and leek on a classic Neapolitan base. It’s soft, flavourful, carb on cheese on carb … phenomenal.
- 450 Hampton Street, Hampton
Walking into this unassuming strip-mall pizza place, all exposed bricks and tomato-tin-laden shelves, you could be excused for assuming it’s going to be more of the same old suburban hits – “I’ll have a Hawaiian with mushrooms”. But one look at the pizzas and you know this is serious.
The margherita does not disappoint – with generous bubbles of fior di latte from local maestro Giorgio at That’s Amore Cheese, on an equally bubbly base. There are “special” pizzas too, with additions such as walnuts and balsamic reflecting the young pizzaiolo’s creative flair.
- 904 Doncaster Road, Doncaster East
This is the one that blew me away with the most flavoursome, impeccably balanced margherita. After having eaten seven other margheritas on the same day, I knew what I was looking for.
As we sat beneath the glow of the shiny disco ball, ’90s techno pumping through the speakers, my mouth was treated to tangy San Marzano tomato passata, herbaceous torn basil, stretchy mozzarella di bufala and lashings of olive oil – every element singing along to the doof-doof (of my heart).
- 1398 Toorak Road, Camberwell
Another family-friendly favourite that’s also family-owned, this place is made for big groups, with a larger, slightly more private area at the back to fit the entire familia. You can also pre-order metre-long pizzas with the same squishy, wood-fired base. Their walls and pizza oven are adorned with frescoes of Naples, encapsulating their pride for the birthplace of the pizza we know today. I’m a fan of quattro anything, and here it’s the quattro salumi – champagne ham, sopressa salami, pancetta, and pork and fennel sausage – sublime.
- 321 High Street, Kew
All exposed bricks, wood and concrete, this Thornbury treasure is built for after-school outings. When I visit, the ratio is about two-to-one kid-to-adult, and the level of juvenile joviality reverberates off the walls. If you have a noisy brood to feed, they’ll fit right in. Their pizza is made to exacting Verace Pizza Napoletana standards and has a satisfying level of smokiness that’s not easy to achieve from only 90 seconds in the wood-fired oven. Plan ahead for the Nutella calzone.
- 161-163 Darebin Road, Thornbury
This new kid on the block is taking the CBD by storm, combining Neapolitan precision with New York convenience. You can buy pizza by the slice from the front counter (perfect for lunch-break cravings), or commit to the whole wheel. Complete with DJ decks playing old vinyl and an uber-cool beer and wine list, this is old school meets new school in a very Melbourne sort of way, which is only to be expected from David Mackintosh, the man who helped shape laneway hits such as MoVida, Rosa’s Canteen and Lee Ho Fook.
- 26 Liverpool Street, Melbourne
Referring to the quality-assuring Denominazione di Origine Controllata, this place prides itself on the best ingredients from Australia and the mother country. The offering goes beyond pizza and pasta into salumi and a cheese-tastic mozzarella degustation, served with such delicacies as white Sardinian anchovies and shaved fennel. The space is bright and fresh, perfect for warmer weather. The calzone (folded pizza) is my pick here. It’s moreish – moist, stuffed full of ricotta, ham, and spinach and, most importantly, flavour!
- 326 Lygon Street, Carlton
Founded by Melbourne’s self-styled Mr Pizza, Johnny Di Francesco, the original location at Brunswick East is all black, dark wood grain and concrete floors – with buzzwords on the wall (including the big G) and copper wood ovens breathing fire that’s visible from the front door. There’s plenty of al fresco seating here to take advantage of the corner location, so you can sit out the front and shout expressively at passers-by in your best Italian, folded pizza slice in hand. A Melbourne icon to bring visiting guests to for some pizza e bira.
- 99 Lygon Street, Brunswick East