3416 Warburton Highway Warburton, Victoria 3799
|Opening hours||Thursday-Sunday, 9am-late|
|Phone||03 5966 5635|
"We've had people make bookings and walk out because we haven't got pineapple for their pizzas," says Greg McMahon, co-owner of Little Joe, a cracking new pizzeria that has unequivocally elevated Warburton's dining scene.
"Hawaiian" territory it isn't, but Little Joe is doing plenty right, opening on the town's busiest weekend – the Nordic Festival in May – and running flat-stick ever since.
It's owned by two local couples – McMahon and Madeline Reilly, and James Holdom and Amy Bliss – who met working at Innocent Bystander, a renowned pizzeria-winery in Healesville. Holdom cooks; the others wrangle front-of-house.
The foursome took over the former Polish Jester restaurant, gutting the century-old cinderblock building with sparkling results: white walls, Moorish-style tiles, red gum timber floors, and a wood-fired oven that took two weeks to "burn in".
Everything on the menu is made from scratch, from the house-baked Turkish bread to dip in olive oil and dukkah, to the breakfast pastries and the skinless sausage – a combo of pork mince and back fat, roasted fennel, garlic and paprika.
Snacky starters hang on Middle Eastern flavours, such as lamb shoulder rubbed with paprika, cumin and garlic, marinated for 24 hours in beer and sherry, and barbecued medium rare. It's tossed with green pickled chilli, fresh peas and feta, making a snazzy Lebanese-style salad.
Mini bisteeya-style pastries are tasty parcels, filled with a sweet-savoury mix of shredded duck leg.
Oh, and do try the bite-sized balls of arancini – they rock. Arborio rice is slow-simmered in a leek and fennel stock, then mixed with dill and a buttery leek and thyme fondant, and a nib of provolone that goes melty in the middle.
In terms of "name" restaurants, Holdom says he hasn't really worked anywhere "massive", and it's ironic that he failed pastry-making twice during his chef's apprenticeship but has since won accolades for his croissants and worked as head baker at Innocent Bystander. He has tried hard to create a pizza dough recipe that distinguishes itself from the rest – so, no sourdough. Litte Joe's bases have good flavour and chew, with fat crusts and ultra-thin bottoms that blacken nicely on the stone of the wood oven.
Topping combos include Istra calabrese with fior di latte and basil; garlicky potato with crunchy roasted walnuts and feta; and that soft pork sausage with onion and provolone and rosemary. And there's a pizza with "no green stuff" for the kids.
All up, a smart, professional operation, equally at home in Warburton as inner-city Carlton. McMahon and Reilly's hospitality background is solid: former Di Stasio and Melbourne Wine Room; and McMahon was a co-founder of Cicciolina.
"We wanted to set ourselves apart by doing something different," says McMahon, and they've certainly done that. Little Joe is a boon for Warby. Top job.
Do ... you know this pizzeria is named after Warburton's Mount Little Joe?
Don't ... forget to make a booking
Dish ... Any pizza
Vibe ... Date night, big group, family dinner — no worries