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