Crowning the world’s best margherita pizza is a big ask….but Johnny Di Francesco, chef and owner of Brunswick pizzeria 400 Gradi was awarded this accolade by the judges at World Pizza Championships in Italy in April 2014.
Luckily for Melburnians, 400 Gradi has just expanded into their second restaurant at Crown and it serves the same fantastic pizzas and other traditional Italian and Neapolitan dishes as the original restaurant.
I was invited to a first taste of Gradi at Crown’s menu and I can attest that every single dish was delicious, authentic and well-presented. A dining experience that was almost flawless from start to finish.
At the entrance to Gradi at Crown you’re greeted by a large rack of salumi and enormous wheels of cheese. In fact as soon as you walk into the restaurant you smell cured meats, not pizza!
On the left of the salumi counter is a Venetian-style cicchetti bar where you can snack on freshly cut salumi and formaggi over a glass or two of Italian wine. All the cheese is imported from Italy while the majority of the salumi is also imported from Italy with a few Australian exceptions, such as the mortadella.
On the right stretches a massive dining space with cosy chocolate easy chairs and a combination of large and small tables. I particularly liked the communal marble-topped table overhung with glistening copper pots as decoration.
The copper motif extends to the two glorious wood fired ovens presiding over the pizza making station. The two ovens were in constant use during our dinner, doling out pizza after pizza from its fiery depths.
Our dinner started with a selection of salumi served atop a thin wafer of Sardinian ‘carasau’ bread. My favourite was the Prosciutto Crudo Mornello 18month ($6.50 for 30g, $14 for 70g), thinly sliced and meltingly tender. I don’t know what they feed those pigs but the prosciutto tasted distinctly of soy sauce (the quality Japanese stuff, not Maggi)! Umami heaven.
From the formaggi selection I enjoyed the novelty of the Bello Lodi Raspadura, which comes in big wheels with shavings slipped into a neat paper bag ($6 for 30g, $13 for 70g). A couple of slivers dissolved on the tongue was just perfect.
The antipasti selection is mostly about beef and seafood. The standout was the only version of surf and turf that I condone – vitello tonnato ($19). A platter of finely sliced slow cooked beef, served cold with a velvety sauce of tuna, mascarpone, mayonnaise and fat, not too salty, capers.
For those not watching their waistline too much I urge you to try the montanare fritte. I wasn’t sure what they were based on the description on the menu and I was expecting small dough balls.
Montanare fritte turned out to be deep fried pizza dough crowned with savoury toppings ($15 for 3). Plump pillows of featherlight dough – a dangerously addictive savoury doughnut! My favourite topping was the ‘classica’ with San Marzano tomato, buffalo mozzarella, basil and parmesan, full of sunny margherita pizza flavours.
Which turns me to the main event – the pizza. Chef Johnny Di Francesco is the first Australian ever trained in Naples to the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana rules. There are fourteen choices on the menu, all traditional combinations. They don’t offer gluten-free pizza as so much flour gets scattered around the kitchen that it’d be impossible to manage the potential cross-contamination (though they do offer gluten-free pasta on request).
The margherita ($21) and the caserta ($25.50) were the standouts. Is it the best margherita pizza in the world? I’m not the authoritative judge of that but these pizzas ticked all the right boxes for me.
Smoky, yeasty, slightly chewy crust that wasn’t soggy. Simple toppings with quality, high flavour ingredients. The caserta had the extra edge over the margherita, thanks to that 18 month prosciutto again.
If you’re an unadulterated carb lover then you can find more dough in the dessert menu. Gradi at Crown offer calzone with nutella and ricotta or coffee and mascarpone ($15).
The excellent crust meant that the molten filling didn’t turn the whole package into a soggy mess. In terms of flavour I preferred the coffee over the nutella (normally my favourite) as I found the mixture of ricotta made the filling heavier and diluted the telltale choc-hazelnut sweetness.
The dessert menu also offers tiramisu ($15), sweetly served in a pot-bellied jar and well-balanced in its layering of mascarpone and sponge, coffee and port liqueur.
The dark chocolate fondant ($15) was similarly perfect, with a release of molten chocolate lava upon spoon entry and a spongy exterior.
The only downfall of the desserts was that they appeared to be served with mass-produced vanilla ice cream, a curious anomaly to a menu otherwise concerned with top quality produce and the provenance of ingredients.
My dinner at Gradi at Crown was an excellent way to carb-load to a satisfied tummy. Their pizzas are certainly contenders for some of the best pizza I’ve ever eaten but they don’t fall short in other parts of their menu either. Go the dough!
Gradi at Crown, Shop 25, 8 Whiteman Street, Southbank 03 9696 9888
Lygon Street is a strip that’s so familiar to me that it’s a bit same old-same old, so I decided to ask readers for a tip for somewhere new to try. Le Miel et La Lune was a fabulous discovery! The cafe is in a sweet little spot just a block away from Lygon St which serves….Korean. I was expecting a French patisserie and got gochuchang.
Which is fine because I love Korean food and I love a kick of chilli in the morning. And while you can still order poached eggs and smashed avo on toast (yawn) I urge you to try the more unusual fare in the all day breakfast and lunch menu.
The Korean chef Jung Eun Chae has developed a menu where pickled vegetables (not necessarily kimchi), miso and enoki, shimeji and shiitake feature. I was so excited I didn’t know where to start!
I chose the heaviest lunch dish available, the tteokboki, described to me as like gnocchi ($17.90). It is in fact a popular Korean street snack with knobs of soft rice cake, slices of fish cake and sweet red chili sauce. This version was served with an unexpectedly successful pairing of melted tasty cheese and a perfectly poached egg. It was spicy, salty, oozy and chewy at the same time. Amazing!
The other dish I tried was the crispy tofu salad ($17.90) with balls of shiitake mushroom and tofu rolled and deep fried. Five generous orbs came with a pickled daikon salad, sauteed kale, almonds and chia seed. Overall I didn’t love the texture. The balls were too dry and everything else on the plate was crunchy and crispy too. Compared to the luxurious texture of the tteokboki it was just too earnestly healthy for my liking.
The lunch has more Korean inspired gems, including a bulgogi burger, SSAM pork belly and a 12 grain rice bowl.
I’m not convinced that coffee is the right beverage to match these dishes but if you cannot function without it then they serve beans from Proud Mary.
The service at Le Miel et La Lune was as sweet as the cutesy decor. The large windows let in the morning sun (and become bench seats on sunny days) but I liked hunkering down in the banquette by the wall, watching to see whether the upside-down pot plants would crash down on an unsuspecting customer.
Le Miel et La Lune is an unexpected spot of Korean nestled amongst Italionophile Carlton. Its menu contains some of the most unusual ingredients and combinations I’ve tried in Melbourne, which makes a trip to the cafe an exciting journey of discovery.
Providence is a bright new cafe in Carlton in a part of Rathdowne Street that’s not currently well served by cafes. It’s located in the lobby of Australian Unity’s new aged care facility Rathdowne Place but you wouldn’t know it.
The fit out is contemporary, airy and cheerful and there’s not a hint of granny mustiness to it. Though it’s charming that the nonnas of Carlton enjoy taking their extra-hot English breakfast tea in its sunny surrounds.
Providence is the work of entrepreneurial and enthusiastic hospitality duo Elena and Michael Tan (Hero Subs, Reading Room Cafe, The Grain Store). The cafe’s mantra is to source and serve local and seasonal produce, primarily from the farmers markets around Victoria.
They are a mere hop, skip and jump from the new fortnightly farmers markets inside the grounds of Carlton Primary School so they are well-placed to access the freshest ingredients and to know their producers intimately.
I was invited to sample some of their breakfast dishes and was impressed by the fresh combination of ingredients and their acknowledgement throughout the menu of their producers.
Morning rituals for many people involve either a tea or coffee and Providence source their teas from Larsen and Thompson ($3.50 a pot) and coffee from Brunswick organic small batch roaster Code Black Coffee ($3.50 small, $4 large). I particularly admired the ash coloured crockery by Melbourne ceramist Ingrid Tufts and the cheerful tea pots from T2 Tea.
For those who aren’t tea or coffee drinkers I recommend the breakfast smoothie of almond milk, blueberries, banana, oats and dates ($6.50 full size). It’s not too sweet and deliciously smooth – a perfect breakfast on the go for weekday commuters as it’s very filling.
Breakfast is served until 3pm (cafe closes at 4pm) and includes a small selection skewed towards savoury items. Thankfully, it’s not just eggs, eggs and more eggs.
Having said that, my favourite breakfast dish was the egg and bacon pie ($18). This huge English style shortcrust pie was filled with a surprisingly light concoction of egg with shreds of Gamze Smokehouse’s bacon inside. The pastry was a standout, buttery and flaky without being greasy and heavy. The pie was accompanied by some housemade tomato chutney and a mass of fresh salad leaves tied with a ribbon of prosciutto.
My other favourite dish was the breakfast salad ($17), an unusual result given that I’m not much of a salad fan generally and normally not for breakfast. This salad was a riot of grilled Barham Avocados, chunks of sticky ham hock, a huge mass of greenery, peas and pats of goat curd with a small roll of flatbread on the side. Fresh, salty, creamy and crunchy – plus I never realised you could grill avocados and not have them turn into a smashed mess!
We also tried two other savoury dishes. Slices of Gamze Smokehouse’s hot smoked trout and herbs were packed atop a crunchy and creamy bubble and squeak patty with two perfectly poached eggs ($20) and some pumpkin and Burrum Biodynamic’s lentil fritters with chilli tomato pickle, coconut yoghurt and leaves ($17).
I found the fritters a little bit dry but I suspect it wouldn’t hold together otherwise. The texture was aided by a thick slather of chilli tomato pickle which you can also buy by the jar for $10.
To finish we tried a miniature version of the breakfast berry clafoutis ($17), sort of like a baked pancake or pan-fried hotcake that I’ve been seeing around Melbourne cafes lately. This version was a light batter studded with berries and topped with toasted almond flakes and a scoop of Gundowring’s rhubarb ice cream and a shard of ruby rhubarb.
Lunch changes day to day depending on what’s fresh and good at the moment so you can be assured that everything will be inspired by the season.
I was impressed by all the food at Providence and particularly to the passion of the owners and the commitment by the chef Cate Hardman to support local producers. Given its menu and its location next door to Carlton Primary School and across the road from the recently reopened Carlton Baths, I think it will draws a crowd of all ages. Use it as a pit stop before or after the Carlton Primary School farmers markets and be inspired!
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