Australia in the '80s. What a time to be alive. Our prime minister had a beer-chugging record and everyone (I) thought pizza was the ham and pineapple thing that you ate sometime before striking the all-you-could-eat dessert bar at Pizza Hut.
Melbourne's pizza scene, thankfully, pre-dated the Pizza Hut years. The first pizza bar in Australia was Toto's, which opened on Lygon Street in 1961, at that time a fairly lonely southern Italian outpost in a landscape of mostly northern food.
But while we had "authentic" pizza, a decade before the all-you-can-eat monster Hut landed in Sydney in the 1970s, Australia bastardised Italy's wonderfood as well as any other country did. The mass of what we served until the '90s was probably far more in line with the stretchy cheesed, spongy and greasy-crusted pizze of the chains than a sloppy-centred and delicately-dressed Neapolitan pizza.
The tide is generally agreed to have turned towards what everyone was gaggingly calling "artisanal" pizza when Pietro Barbagallo turned pizza culture into a cult with I Carusi in 1998. People crossed the city to Brunswick East as much for the drum and bass and hot waitstaff as his thin, crisp-based pizze.
In the following years, a Neapolitan-style disc has taken the place in our mind of what pizza should look like – specifically if it follows the specs laid down by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana – 48-hour risen base cooked in a wood-fired oven with strict DOC-approved toppings. Supermaxi, Woodstock, DOC and 400 Gradi have become institutions.
Come 2017, along with the Middle Eastern pizza at Moor's Head, New York slices at Pizza Pizza Pizza, and Rome's pizza al taglio at Lievita, pizza is a lot of things. It's often vegan. The entirely plant-based Red Sparrow has just opened doors on Smith Street. In the city, the Grossi family is opening a dedicated bar later this year serving pizza pockets they've dubbed pezzo.
Even if you don't do dough, anywhere worth its salt can sub you a gluten-free base. Even at Tiamo's. It's a good time for pizza. Get involved with two hands.
Broccolini pizza at Postino. Photo: Eddie Jim
You've heard a lot about 48-hour fermented dough in the past couple of years. Head to the balmy climbs of Balwyn where mansions resemble the covers of puzzles and locals had to vote to give this pizzeria its licence (wine, limoncello and Peroni are now go) you'll find 72-hour bases. It's an electric-charged stone oven, but it makes no difference – huge air pockets give you a big texture range from the finest bits that blister to the point of total blowouts to the chewy crust. All of this is enhanced with a post-cook addition of their air-freighted mozzarella and DOC prosciutto, plus herbs from their garden.
97 Whitehorse Road, Balwyn, 03 9817 1000, postino.com.au
Prosciutto topped pizza at Cucina and Co. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen
Cucina and Co
Riccardo Bianchini (ex-DOC Mornington, DOC Albert Park, Caffe e Cucina), along with partners Peter Aloi (Caffe Duomo) and Peter Kisvarda, broke open Brighton's pizza world last February with more 72-hour risen base action backed by a semi-lengthy list of Sicilian dishes. Along with the classic pizze flavours (mashed pumpkin and sausage, with mozzarella and basil being a breakout – a good one) there's more Sicilian bread in spongy focaccia. Following in 400 Gradi's footsteps, a dedicated bar is opening soon.
325 New Street, Brighton, 03 9530 5324, cucinaandco.com.au
The decor amounts to the tools of the job – vinyl chairs taken from a deco kitchen somewhere, bare bricks and chalkboard that offers what you're here for and pretty much nothing else. No sides, no salads. They just do Neapolitan-style pizza at Lorenzo Tron and Roberto Davioli's shop. You know the drill – the 48-hour dough, the hellmouth oven, the bubbles and high-end toppings. Our best is the 'nduja and silverbeet with straccitella or there's a cheesy bacon and onion wonder. What you mightn't expect of a purist is vegan and gluten-free sub-ins.
225 Melville Road, Pascoe Vale South, 03 9077 4904
Checkered tablecloths inside Lazerpig. Photo: supplied
It's a pizzeria in a bluestone Collingwood pub with a crowd that seems exclusively made up of 27- to 28-year-olds. Take that as a pro or a con, but the beers are local and craft-driven and the pizza landing on the checkered cloth tables is exceptional. They go buck wild on the combos and puns, but if you think the pulled lamb shoulder, ricotta and pea Mary Hadi a Little Lamb is laying it on thick, they also nail a Queen Margherita, adding fior di latte to the party of fresh torn basil. Get a jar of their pickled veg on the side to embellish anything and either come for, or avoid, packed Fridays.
9-11 Peel Street, Collingwood, 03 9417 1177, lazerpig.com.au
Funghi pizza at Kaprica. Photo: Timothy Grey
Pietro Barbagallo made pizza a cult at I Carusi in Brunswick East in the 1990s. Following a break from the industry a few years ago, Barbagallo came back with this converted Carlton garage that's one of Melbourne's best dating weapons. You can sit on the street facing the park (or take away, including wine, and get on the grass). Inside, tables are packed and years of accumulated tat lines the walls. The bases themselves are Sicilian-crisp but pliable and excellently laden. The No.26 – sweated leeks with a bucketload of gorgonzola – is still the king.
19 Lincoln Square S, Carlton, 03 9347 1138
A spread at Beer, Wine and Calzone. Photo: Simon Shiff
Beer, Wine & Calzone
Pro tip: if you're investigating the calzone (your pizza sealed shut over its contents like a giant Cornish pastie), eat in and book into a gig at the downstairs jazz club, Bird's Basement, rather than eating them in your car. They don't skimp on the stuffing of these pockets and a molten river of salami, chilli and mozzarella is a friend to your mouth, not lap. Facing Flagstaff Gardens, the grey and orange space looks commercial, but the oven is a beast, and the dough has all the personality you expect from using an 80-year-old yeast starter.
350 William Street, Melbourne, 1300 292 259, beerwineandcalzone.com
Pizza pocket aka pezzo. Photo: Supplied
The Grossi family's Bourke Street salumi and wine bar has had thin crisp pizze on the menu since opening in 2014, with the option to dress it yourself with their selection of house-made salumi. Since last year, they've been serving what they've termed pezzo ("a piece"): 48-hour fermented dough that isn't flattened but allowed to puff up like a pita pocket. These are halved and filled with the likes of meatballs and sugo, slices of porchetta and cabbage or calamari. Come late 2017, they plan to have a flagship Pezzo Bar with offshoots around the city. Lunch in one fist. White pants be damned.
76 Bourke Street, Melbourne, 03 9639 1927, ombrabar.com.au
SPQR also sells pizza by-the-slice. Photo: Stefan Postles
Coming in hot on the clothes-wrecking front is David Mackintosh's newish Neapolitan-style pizza and wine bar on Liverpool Street. Bases are made to Neapoli specs: 48-hour fermented sourdough pressed thin at the centre, rising to crust that bubbles and blisters black. Bianco (non-tomato) versions, dressed with, strips of lardo, or potato, fior di latte and pork sausage, sometimes need a chilli booster but it's all about the san marzano tomato numbers so soupy you eat true Napoli-style with a knife and fork. Up your salt with the acciughe embellished with olives and anchovies, or there's a play on amatriciana pasta featuring crisp pork jowl, chilli and pecorino. At lunch, a slice at the bar and a tinnie is a tenner.
26 Liverpool Street, Melbourne, 03 9671 3326, spqrpizzeria.com
Buy your pizza by the kilogram at Leivita. Photo: Darrian Traynor
Pizza by the slice, chosen from the window and reheated, is no mystery to fans of the Lamb's shop next to Black Pearl bar. But Lievita does Rome's al taglia pizza (big rectangles, almost like elaborate focaccia priced by the kilo which they snip off at your command). Eight lengths at a time sit dressed in the cabinet – whole cherry tomatoes crushed with fresh cheese, 'nduja sausage and with the cream of burrata running off the edges or their custom mortadella and hummus – which you can take by the inch or the mile to eat in the little shop or drag off to a park bench.
298 High Street, Northcote, 03 9489 9498, lievita.com.au
Brekkie pizza at A Boy Named Sue. Photo: Eddie Jim
A Boy Named Sue
Sometime it's about the journey, not the pizza. Except when it's this mudbrick legend in St Andrews, both a destination for the lycra set doing long rides to or around the Kinglake area and turning out excellent wood-fired pizza, coffees and beers. The owners are the same team behind Lazerpig and the menus are almost the same, but they score a double mention here for setting a scene. Fire drums burn outside in winter, taps pour local craft beers and DJs come in to play while the St Andrews markets run outside. Worth the hike.
87 Burns Street, St Andrews, 03 9710 1023, aboynamedsue.com.au