Simone Egger

The Zingara pizza at 400 Gradi in Brunswick. Click for more photos

Artisan pizzas go back to basics

The Zingara pizza at 400 Gradi in Brunswick. Photo: Angela Wylie

  • The Zingara pizza at 400 Gradi in Brunswick.
  • The thick bubbled crust at Cantina Centrale, which does a roaring trade in the early-dinner shift.
  • The AVPN-accredited margherita at Firechief in Hawthorn.
  • Johnny Di Francesco shaping the dough at 400 Gradi.
  • Salmon pizza at Kaprica, which also does a fine version of the Nutella pizza.
  • The award-winning Bunga Bunga pizza at Non Solo Pasta (NSP).
  • Thin-crust is the go at Pizza Religion in Hawthorn.
  • The margherita at Mr Wolf in St Kilda.
  • "Inauthentic pizza" from The Moor's Head in Thornbury.

Melbourne's pizza-wheel of evolution keeps on turning, but is it turning backwards? Back to before prawns, peas and wagyu ever saw a pizza base. Even back to before electricity?

The growing number of pizza makers who use only wood-fired ovens (for the slight smokiness it imbues), who subscribe to a three-ingredient maximum with toppings, and who use only tomatoes grown in the soil at the base of Mount Vesuvius would agree.

The 'old-ways' artisan approach to pizza-making – using only "real" ingredients (no starters), time and craftsmanship – applies, but every place you go has a particular product, like a fingerprint, that is a result of preferences in process, ingredients, tools and craft.

When Carlo Ursini started making pizza for Pellegrini's in the early '60s it was slab-style. "The bases were an inch thick," he says. "We made basic (tomato and olives) slab pizza and sold it by the slice."

When Ursini opened his own restaurant, Pizza Napoli, on Russell Street in 1965, they made the thin bases that are standard today, from "OO" flour.

"I think it's because of the weight watch – we make the base thinner to make the people thinner," Ursini says.

He has also always used San Marzano tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella – two of the key ingredients set out by the home of pizza, Naples' Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (AVPN) – an authority formed to protect the integrity of Neopolitan-style pizza.

A handful of places in Melbourne adhere to the AVPN's exacting specifications, and have official accreditation.

The margherita is the benchmark pizza. The story goes that when Margherita, the Queen of Italy (1878-1900), saw the hoi polloi eating pizza she commissioned chef Raffaele Esposito to make her some. He made her a pizza in the colours of the flag, over which she went gaga, and the tomato, basil and cheese pizza took off – cherished as something all classes had in common.

Naples-born Lino Maglione is head chef at Non Solo Pasta and Itali.co. He has a few rules (including 24 to 30 hours of proofing, San Marzano tomatoes and fior di latte cheese), but is not a great believer in being bound by specific regulations.

"There is no pizza school," he says. "You learn from somebody else how to make ingredients perform well. I keep my menus short, but I keep them interesting. If I want to bring a pasta recipe to pizza, why not?"

This pure and simple style of pizza-making that we're favouring these days comes on the back of at least a decade of "gourmet" pizzas. Thin bottoms and fancy combinations were key in shifting the pizza restaurant up a gear: from family muck-in to fine-dining.

We went crazy for the gourmet pizza's non-traditional toppings, with, say, zucchini flowers and goat's cheese, or tandoori chicken and rocket. The variety of toppings was endless and the prices elevated, but the size was standardised to a one-size-fits-all 11 inches.

A few other cultural influences have stamped our pizza options. The Moor's Head in Thornbury offers "inauthentic pizza" topped with authentic Middle Eastern ingredients, such as tomato, haloumi, bastourma and parsley. Shawcross in Fitzroy is mining our current crush on all things American with its "New York-style" pizzas by the slice and pizza "pies" – but, their Italian-style pizzas are perhaps American in name only.

So, with all these different types of pizza, how do you judge a good one? Matteo Rubbettino is the creator and director of the Pizza Festival. He says: "There are three types of pizza: Napoli style (high edge, and thin middle), Roman style (uniformly thin, such as at Ladro and La Camera) and Italian (everything in between).

Pizza can be judged by its shape and structure. "Ideally you should be able to close down a pizza four times, like a folded brochure," he says.

There's the taste brought about by "the correct use of no more than three high-quality ingredients".

Then there's the passion - ''It's the difference between a business and a love" - and the stomach or digestion: 'If a pizza has been properly proofed, you should have no problem digesting it; no thirst either from the yeast living in your stomach."

That said, pizza is fast, simple food, and something for which most people wouldn't cross town – or need to.

Here's a selection of our top pizzas:

Traditional margherita

Pizza Napoli (Melbourne): Naples-born Carlo Ursini's joint may go against convention in offering two sizes, but has the added dimension of being a pizza pioneer in Melbourne – here for 48 years.

Also try AVPN-accredited pizzerias: 400 Gradi (Brunswick East), Firechief (Hawthorn), La Svolta (Hampton and Prahran) and Scoozi (Ascot Vale).

400 Gradi, 99 Lygon Street, Brunswick East, 9380 2320
Firechief, 169 Camberwell Road, Hawthorn East, 9831 1700
Pizza Napoli, 122 Russell Street, Melbourne, 9654 7127  
La Svolta, 450 Hampton Street, Hampton, 9521 8990 or 3-5 Cecil Place, Prahran, 9510 3001
Scoozi,136 Union Road, Ascot Vale, 9370 0100

Gourmet

Non Solo Pasta (Docklands) and Itali.co (St Kilda). Try the Bunga Bunga, named for Silvio Berlusconi's notorious parties, and zinging with San Marzano tomatoes, fior di latte, Berkshire pork sausage and porcini.

Also try Pizza Religion (Hawthorn East) and its 16-plus varieties.

Non Solo Pasta, 800 Collins Street, Docklands, 9620 1110
Itali.co 173-177 Barkly Street, St Kilda, 9537 5300 
Pizza Religion, 493 Tooronga Road, Hawthorn East 9882 2555

Gluten-free and spelt bases

Pizza Farro (Thornbury) specialises in gluten-free bases (using a blend of rice, tapioca and maize flours). Is also serves spelt bases made from organic unbleached flour, all expertly worked, and topped.

Pizza Farro, 608 High Street, Thornbury, 9484 2040

 Family friendly

Off the Boat (Reservoir) for its wood-fired pizza, home-made gelati, red-gingham authenticity and park locale.

Off the Boat, 203 Edwardes Street, Reservoir, 9460 9646

Dessert pizza

Kaprica (Carlton): Mr Barbagallo (the man behind I Carusi) one-ups the standard Nutella pizza with his soft, sugar dusted mini-calzone oozing with dark, milk and white Belgian chocolate.

Kaprica, 19 Lincoln Square, Carlton

Also try

Mr Wolf (St Kilda) for its early sitting, with $10 Roman-style pizza and sundae and colour-in menus, and Cantina Centrale (Mont Albert) from the team behind Cafe Bedda (Northcote).

Mr Wolf, 9-15 Inkerman Street, St Kilda, 9534 0255 and Cantina Centrale, 11 Hamilton Street, Mont Albert, 9890 4836.

What's your favourite place for pizza in Melbourne? Jump on the comments and share your recommendations.

Simone Egger is the co-editor of the Good Food U$30 guide for Melbourne.