Melbourne has had a deep and abiding love of pizza ever since Italian immigrant Salvatore Della Bruna fired up the oven at Toto's Pizza House on Lygon Street in 1961.
It was Melbourne's first pizzeria, showcasing this Italian staple to a curious Australian audience. Fast-forward a couple of decades and there's a pizza shop next to every milk bar in the country, albeit spinning pizzas that might wrinkle the nose of a stickler for tradition.
This deceptively simple dish is deliciously democratic – it's built for sharing and can lend itself to a casual night in with friends, a jovial night out with family or a tracky-dakked night on your tod.
While the pizza chains are taking a "more is more" approach to pizza innovation, bedecking them with mini-meat pies or wrestling a hotdog into the crust, Melbourne's pizza scene in 2015 is resolutely "less is more", with an emphasis on capturing the authenticity of the Italian original, while catering to contemporary dietary requirements.
Raoul Symons, owner-chef of Motorino in Elsternwick, started his culinary career in the late '80s, concentrating on French cuisine, but it was working at the Dogs Bar alongside future pizza whizzes Karen Martini (Mr Wolf) and Pietro Barbagallo (I Carusi, and now Kaprica) that made him switch countries. "The Italian thing came from there, with the Italian mamas in the kitchen making sugo with their hands, up to their elbows in the pot, squeezing the tomatoes," says Symons.
Melbourne's newer pizzerias are certainly leaning to the more traditional, Roman-style pizza, with thin bases, handmade dough to be proud of, and judicious use of good-quality ingredients.
"I think people are over that dodgy pizza that everyone used to offer," says Symons. "It goes back to places like Mr Wolf, I Carusi and Pizza e Birra – it's all about the dough. We use milk and semolina, good flour, fresh yeast. The dough is the backbone. Ours has a wee bit of sugar, and the milk gives it a really nice mouthfeel."
Symons also notes the importance of not overloading a pizza so it stays light, crisp and flavoursome.
"We don't use much sugo, we like to keep it firm, so when you pick it up it doesn't collapse. It's hard when someone wants a pizza with everything, but you just use a little bit of everything."
One thing you never would've seen on Toto's menu is a gluten-free base, but allergies and dietary requirements have staked their claim on the chalkboards of Melbourne pizzerias.
"Gluten-free has gone absolutely nuts in the last five years," says Symons. "We have a supplier who's the best we've encountered. It's about 90 per cent like our dough. We tried to make our own but I was never happy with it.
"Often when people ring to order, they baulk at the extra cost of the gluten-free base and go with the regular, so we've seen the evolution of choice and necessity there. And we try to keep things healthy. We don't have much saturated fat on our pizzas. We render the fat out of the lamb, the beetroot salad includes superfoods, we don't have any cream-based pastas."
However, not everyone is ready to jump on board the thinner, more minimal style of pizza just yet, but that's just a matter of education and compromise.
"When we started out, we got a lot of requests for Supremes and Meatlovers, which we didn't do.
"But after a few weeks we evolved, so we now have the quattro carne, which is four meats, to satisfy that request. But we make it our way – good olive oil, sea salt and I shop for smallgoods at Altona Fresh, alongside all the Italian mamas.
"Similarly, we don't have barbecue sauce, but if someone asks for it, we use vincotto," Symons says. "We've even had orders for two bases to make it thick. We explain the dough isn't made for a thick base and probably won't work that well. It's just about educating and trying to steer them in the right direction for the best experience."
Dessert pizzas are also getting their moment in the sun, with pizzerias going beyond the standard Nutella and pushing it to the next level with toppings such as salted caramel, poached pear and lemon thyme crumble (Baby, Richmond) or fig, honey and custard (Motorino).
So can you define a classic Melbourne pizza in 2015? Symons sums it up neatly. "It's the newer places doing thin, Roman-style pizza. The old-style pizza is now the new-style pizza."
10 of the best
Obviously, this isn't a definitive list and Melbourne has no shortage of incredible pizza places. Here are 10 of the best, the ones that we are loving, plus some hall-of-famer favourites.
If you want sassy pizza in a New York minute, we may have the answer for you. Lievita in Northcote sell pizza al taglio (by the slice) – spunky rectangles of the stuff – and you pay by weight ($25-$30/kg). You can be as promiscuous as you want with your pizza here. A raft of rotating varieties – maybe a simple spiced tomato or potato and four cheeses – are baked in trays and displayed to the punters. Choose as much or as little of as few or as many as you like and owner, Luca Guerra, will scissor it to size and crisp it up in the oven for you.
298 High Street, Northcote, 9489 9498, lievita.com.au
2. Queen Margherita
This bright-eyed new kid on the Hampton block comes from Marco De Pietrantonio, the son of Ubaldo who opened the famous Pinocchio in South Yarra in 1971. Queen Margherita is airy and relaxed, with booths, tables and bare brick walls, while a stone oven bakes pizzas at a lower temperature for longer, giving a lush toastiness to the base. Traditional pizzas are on the menu but the Mia, with broccolini, nubs of Nino and Joe's sausage and pecorino is hard to beat.
Shop 8, 532 Hampton Street, Hampton, 9598 9598, qmpizza.com.au
With a simple fit-out of wooden tables, stylish photography and black walls writ large with the menu, Motorino is a small, relaxed dining space just around the corner from Elsternwick train station. Bases are thin, crisp and ever so slightly sweet, and topped with vibrant combinations such as smashed green olives with basil puree, ricotta and chilli. Kids can make their own pizza bases (on the house) and have them baked and topped with a sweet topping for dessert, while adults can get their sweet hit from dessert pizzas riffing on the chef's French pastry training – think raspberry with lemon curd or chocolate with pear and custard.
4 Horne Street, Elsternwick, 9528 6044, motorinopizzeriaelsternwick.com.au
Starting with a knockabout rock 'n' roll base and topping it with a hearty serve of grated kitsch, Lazerpig is a bluestone corner pub in Collingwood that beckons you for a drink and makes you settle in for super-light wood-fired pizzas with intoxicatingly charred and bubbled sourdough crusts. Pun-tastic names (Prawn Fraser, Warwick Capricciosa) bely the serious quality here – the Ronny J, with pork sausage, honey and jalapenos is a revelation. Lunch specials (pizza, side salad and drink for $15) are a real bonus too.
9-11 Peel Street, Collingwood, 9417 1177, lazerpig.com.au
5. Pizzeria Trina
"Suburban gem" is an uppity cliché, but Pizzeria Trina really is a cracker of a pizzeria in a small batch of blink-and-you'll-miss-them shops on a stretch of Tucker Road. Sicilian-born Tony Fazio has a pizza pedigree behind him and now, with wife Trina, runs this takeaway pizza shop that spins thin, firm bases and tops them almost right to the edge with burst of flavour like a swirl of balsamic reduction on top of chunky tuna, green olives and caramelised onions.
79a Tucker Road, Bentleigh, 9557 1242, pizzeriatrina.com.au
Damn, this place is good-looking. From the original terrazzo floor to its low-key corner location, it oozes easy style, which manifests in the southern Italian menu of Rita Macali, the original chef and co-owner of lauded Ladro. Pizza here is ultra-thin but built to hold swathes of eggplant, tomato and anchovy, or light, bright palettes of prosciutto, mozzarella and rocket.
305 St Georges Road, Fitzroy North, 9482 2828, supermaxi.com.au
7. The Moor's Head
With pizzas named after Middle Eastern superstars like Omar Sharif and Oum Kalthoum, Dorothy, we're not in Italy any more. Proudly proclaiming to serve "inauthentic" pizzas, The Moor's Head bakes its bases manoushe (round) or pide (boat-shaped) and splashes them with Middle Eastern flavour hits, with toppings such as labna, mint, red pepper and pomegranate molasses or hummus with spiced smoked beef.
Rear, 774 High Street, Thornbury, 9484 0173, themoorshead.com
8. St Domenico
This Bridge Road newbie has a chef fresh from Italy and a clean, simple fit-out of white walls, bentwood chairs, a Faema coffee machine glowing pink and a glass cabinet with logs of scamorza and hanging prosciutto. Pizzas have big, bubbly, chewy crusts surrounding a thinner base topped with combinations like wafer-thin slices of potato, mushroom and a rubble of lean pork-and-fennel sausage or leg ham with truffle paste and fior di latte.
428 Bridge Road, Richmond, 9428 3845, stdomenico.com.au
9. Pizza Religion
Taking up a handsome, split-level corner block in the back streets of Malvern, Pizza Religion is sleek and woodsy, and doing a cracking trade with tables of locals toting their kids, and a phone buzzing with hungry fans ordering from the sophisticated menu. Thin, crisp bases with a golden hue are scattered with chunky combinations such as blood sausage, pancetta, apple, fennel and walnuts or braised beef cheek, celeriac puree, caramelised onions and gremolata.
12-18 Claremont Avenue, Malvern, 9576 0444 and 493 Tooronga Road, Hawthorn East, 9882 2555, pizzareligion.com.au
10. Soul Kitchen Pizza Truck
It wouldn't be a feature about Melbourne food if a food truck didn't roll in somewhere. Soul Kitchen, that psychedelically decorated van spotted outside the Arts Centre is a feat of impressive engineering, hiding a wood-fired pizza oven that can peak at 400 degrees. Firing bases that emerge with a nice fat, charred crust and a handful of simple ingredients on either a sugo base or a mozzarella and olive oil base, it's the perfect excuse for a cheeky pizza picnic in the Botanical Gardens. Or, just huddle around the gas heater and wait for the theatre's "ding, dong, ding" that signals when interval is over.
Arts Centre, St Kilda Road, Melbourne, 0408 544 899, soulkitchenpizzatruck.com.au
Hall of fame
The best of the benchmark pizzerias:
Chef Johnny Di Francesco, who won an Italian competition for best margherita, makes pizzas that are charred and puffy, simple and authentic, like a love letter to carbohydrates.
99 Lygon Street, Brunswick East, 9380 2320, 400gradi.com.au
Spreading good vibes from north (Carlton) to far south (Mornington via Albert Park), DOC's volcanically bubbled crusts and pared-back toppings are benchmark, oh-so-Italian pizzas.
Various locations docgroup.net
Pietro Barbagallo, who started I Carusi, now bakes from a park-side Carlton hole-in-the-wall with an open kitchen that makes pizzas with a light orchestration of ingredients such as broccolini with chilli and lemon.
19 Lincoln Square South, Carlton, 9347 1138
Ladro graces both sides of the river with its cool, white-bricked interiors and delicately charred wood-fired pizzas adorned with fior di latte, gorgonzola, porcini, pangrattato and basil.
Fitzroy and Prahran, ladro.com.au
Karen Martini's low-lit, intimate pizzeria does mouth-watering pizzas – don't miss the pork sausage with pickled chilli peppers – perfect with the cabbage, mint and pea salad on the side.
9-15 Inkerman Street, St Kilda, 9534 0255 mrwolf.com.au