Johnny Di Francesco made his first pizza when he was around 12 years old, and by 19 he had opened his first pizzeria, with plenty more to follow, quietly achieving as a local hero. All that changed six years go when, after a trip back to his family seat of Naples, he decided to introduce a new style of pizza and opened Lygon Street's 400 Gradi in East Brunswick.
Well, new to Australian shores. The Neapolitans have been making them that way for around 200 years. 'The first 18 months were the hardest, because a lot of people didn't understand why the base was so soft and the crust so fluffy,' Di Francesco reveals. 'They wondered why there was so much tomato and why it wasn't in a reduced form, and why is there moisture on the plate?'
Melburnians might have been a wee bit slow on the uptake, but they soon came round and these days 400 Gradi is jam-packed every night. So much so the pizza king is expanding his empire, with a new pizzeria in Crown and a brand new bar, 400 Gradi Cicchetti opening next door to the original venue.
A sexy-looking space created by Stokehouse City designer Pascale Gomes-McNabb, at 400 Gradi Cicchetti mood lighting glints off parquetry floors and a burnished bar and table tops, with stacks of wine bottles held aloft in dark metal units. With the all-pervasive no-booking policy at play, Di Francesco says 400 Gradi Cicchetti is all about popping in for a relaxed glass of wine, with 97 varieties on offer, and grazing on small plates of scintillating morsels or 'cicchettis' the Venetian way.
'I've travelled to Italy many times and I love going to the ciccheti bars when I'm in Venice,' Di Francesco says. 'I love eating that way, with small plates and lots of them, experiencing a full menu with great wines. I love the vibe behind it.'
Cicchetti on offer at 400 Gradi's new bar include grilled baby calamari marinated with mint, fennel and chilli, served with tartare sauce; a salivating grilled mortadella served with pistachio and goats cheese; a daily selection of carpaccio; and sashimi-grade tuna meatballs. Oysters will be freshly shucked daily too. 'We never carry them over; if anything is left, my staff eats them,' Di Francesco says. 'It's a nice thing to see them enjoying it as well.'
400 Gradi Cicchetti bartender, Fulvio Virgill
Italian food lovers will also be able to buy mortadella, pancetta and prosciutto, including a cantina secretum, aged for 30 months, all sliced to order at the bar and charged by weight. There's also a huge selection of cheeses at 400 Gradi Cicchetti, with Pecorino aged in crushed grape skins and the parmesan-like Raspadura, shaved with a metal blade right in front of you. 'There's a beautiful theatre behind it, really capturing the essence of what Italy is all about,' adds Di Francesco. 'You don't need to travel to get the quality any more, because we have so many fantastic producers in Victoria.'
That huge wine selection is another great draw card at 400 Gradi Cicchetti, with more than 20 by the glass, but there's a twist, too – a smart piece of equipment is en route from Italy that will allow Di Francesco and co to uncork any bottle and offer single pours, with the remainder being kept in tip top condition. 'I wanted to give people the opportunity to have a taste of a $200-300 bottle of wine and experience that without breaking the budget. I always say it's a short term investment when you're drinking a great wine.'
If cocktails are more your thing, 400 Gradi Cicchetti does not disappoint. The fascinatingly inventive list pairs each cocktail with a mouth-watering accompaniment, like a cognac and bitters poured in a truffle absinthe-washed glass served with truffle chips or the Streets of Melbourne – gin shaken with aperol, passion fruit pulp, lemon and orange flower water and an egg white, with a passion fruit full of frothy cream on the side. YUM!
Image credits: Nick West, The Urban List