When we heard there was a World Pizza Championship held in Italy every year, we immediately started searching cheap flights and practicing our Buongiorno’s. When we found out one of the world pizza champions was in fact Melbourne dweller and Gradi Group restaurateur Johnny Di Francesco, we put our credit cards away and made a booking at 400 Gradi quick smart.
Known around town as Melbourne’s Mr Pizza, Di Francesco’s accolades don’t stop at the world’s best Pizzaiolo (that’s Italian for Pizza Maker), he is also the first Australian to ever be trained in Naples to the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana VPN rules, and in turn is their Australasian Principal, so you’re getting the real deal when you take a slice from Johnny.
There’s no denying in recent years pizza has had a massive resurgence in Melbourne food culture, and Di Francesco is living proof, having just opened another 400 Gradi restaurant in Ringwood, taking the Gradi Group grand restaurant tally up to four. We stopped for a chianti to take a slice of knowledge from Melbourne’s Mr Pizza about his work.
You have been making pizza from a very young age; did you ever think you would be the creator of the World’s Best Pizza? How does a title like that feel for you?
No, I didn’t think I’d be the creator of the world’s best pizza! Winning that title is one of the best moments of my life and a career highlight. It felt – and still feels – amazing. There were so many talented pizza makers competing on the day that I have to say that yes, I was the best that day, but the sheer level of expertise in some of the pizza makers I’ve been privileged to get to know or work with proves that there are plenty people worthy of the title.
What do you think makes a great pizza?
I’m absolutely an advocate for less is more, and letting each flavour hold its own. It’s about using the best quality ingredients and using them well – I use Italian tomatoes from San Marzano but there are some great cheese producers from Australia that we use. If you have quality ingredients you have beautiful flavours, so keep it simple. The other thing that makes a great pizza is love. If you’re not cooking with love and passion, the final product will reflect that. When I competed at the world championships, I cooked as though I was cooking for the people I love, just like I do every day, and I honestly believe that’s why I won.
What is the biggest trend in pizza coming through lately, have you noticed any new tricks or toppings starting to surface?
The awareness and knowledge around authentic pizza is definitely growing. I, along with others, have worked so hard to bring an understanding of traditional Neapolitan techniques to the country, and now I see it paying off! Consumers are starting to move away from those fast food trends with puffy bases and heavy layered toppings. Instead the traditional style pizzas, such as the Neapolitan style are becoming increasingly popular. As customers learn more about it and realise the quality in the product, there’s an increased appreciation for my style of pizza.
So I guess it’s not so much about seeing new tricks emerging, but I’m seeing a greater movement towards age-old tricks and toppings and I’m really happy about that!
For those playing at home with a conventional oven, what would be your three top tips for the perfect pizza?
Once again – quality ingredients, that’s number one! Secondly don’t try to put too much on your pizza – it’s easy to overdo it on the toppings or cheese, but once again, less is more. It’s more important to have ingredients that complement each other. Finally, it’s good to know that putting a cold tray into a hot oven makes the pizza cook from the top first. It sounds strange, but because of this, I recommend finishing your pizza on the stove top. Still keep it on the tray, but use the stove top, you won’t have a raw base and it will be cooked to perfection.
What is something you would never put on a pizza you create?
I get a lot of people asking if I’d put pineapple on a pizza – personally, I don’t, and we don’t do it in our restaurants. I’m not against it though, and if that’s what you like – then go for it!
What is your favourite food to entertain with when you’re not creating Melbourne’s best pizza?
I love simple cheese and meat platters with focaccia – we have some incredible charcuteries at our Gradi restaurants and I love setting a platter down amongst friends and family and enjoying the flavours from there. It’s especially perfect as we move into the warmer seasons, a bottle of chianti, a few platters and a night of quality time with the people I love – bellissimo!