Fresh blood and red sauce: The Melbourne pizza joint breaking convention

Melbourne is currently going through major pizza reform. One chef taking pizza outside its regular conventions is Nick Stanton of Leonardo’s Pizza Palace, whose inspiration comes from Australia, New York and Italy. Ahead of the opening of his second pizza joint, Leo’s, Aleksandra Bliszczyk and Stanton discussed dough, ovens and drinking food.

Melbourne has been bogged in Neapolitan pizza dough for a while. Fermented dough blistered into charcoal bubbles in a woodfired oven, topped with an undercoat of San Marzano tomato puree, pellets of fior di latte, and three big basil leaves. This pizza was invented in 1889 by Neapolitan chef Raffaele Esposito to honour queen Margherita with the colours of the Italian flag, and it’s the pizza that droves of Italian immigrants brought to Carlton, Melbourne’s little Italy, from after the Second World War onwards.

For years, we’ve been told this is the best pizza in the world. It is bloody good, but now a new generation of Italian restaurants is defying the Margherita laws laid down by the offcial pizza body, the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (AVPN). Fresh hands are grabbing the tipo 00 flour and pushing pizza beyond its origins with new vitality.

Melbourne’s Capitano, Takeaway Pizza, Wolf and Swill and Leonardo’s Pizza Palace, to name a just few, are taking measures of inspiration from the city’s pizza forebearers and throwing their own spanners in the works in the forms of brussels sprouts, bone marrow, caviar and “Chinese bolognese”.

“There’s some great chefs out there grabbing the torch from the old-school guys and injecting a bit of fresh energy into the cuisine without destroying it,” says chef-owner Nick Stanton of Leonardo’s Pizza Palace – responsible for topping pizzas with Chinese bolognese sauce, a handmedown from his now-closed hatted restaurant Ramblr made with beef, gochujang, shaoxing wine, black vinegar, master stock, ginger and garlic.

“Melbourne already has such a rich Italian community that’s been making amazing pizza for a really long time,” he acknowledges, but now “there’s a little bit of room” for careful, considered experimentation.

Leonardo's Pizza Palace's back dining room

His part-restaurant part-party bar in Carlton is recalibrating Australia’s takeaway-shop style of pizza; taking cues from pizza culture in New York; and adopting the Italian approach to great local ingredients. Each hefty two-person pie is constructed with 420 grams of thin, lightly charred, crackly dough. Rather than using a traditional flame-powered oven, Stanton’s is electric but stone-based – the type of oven commonly seen in New York slice shops.

“I like all styles of pizza, I don’t have a favourite, but the thing is with the New York style is the crispness and dryness of the dough,” he says.

His sturdy pies are first topped with red sauce and a house cheese blend of Monterey Jack, mozzarella and provolone, before being smothered with toppings like fistfuls of fresh jalapeno wheels; or a weighty combination of sausage, bolognese, ‘nduja, pancetta, pepperoni, red onion, honey, thyme for his take on the classic Aussie meat lovers.

Leonardo’s kitchen team has worked to improve each element of the pizzas every week since opening at the end of 2018.
“You’ve got to have a love for the actual craft of making pizza,” he says. “Don’t just open a pizza shop because it’s a trend or you want to make money. You’ve got to be obsessed with it because it’s something that has to keep getting nurtured.”

Stanton's pepperoni pizza

Using good ingredients is the key he says. Rather than defaulting to “processed fucking ham and out-of-the-packet toppings”, Leonardo’s pepperoni is made from scratch and specially engineered by Gary’s Quality Meats so that each disc curls into a cup when cooked – a throwback to the Australian pepperoni pizza dreams of his youth.

“Where I grew up in Tweed Heads, there was no Napolitana-style pizza. We had Eagle Boys, Domino’s and Pizza Hut and then your local takes on those styles,” says Stanton.

The Australian takeaway pizza, with its thick slices of green capsicum, button mushrooms and strips of squishy luncheon ham, is not an evolution of the traditional Margherita. Instead, it spawned from the American chain styles, or, the middleman.

“We were brought up in this artificial world of pizza with packet everything, not fresh ingredients. Whereas those original guys in America [who started the major pizza chains] would’ve used good ingredients to begin with, but then they turned it into a franchise, and they had to find ways to cut costs,” he says.

Now he says the question of quality ingredients shouldn’t even be asked of chefs opening pizza restaurants.
When Stanton talks to foodservice, he’s a month away from opening his new by-the-slice pizza joint, Leo’s, in the former site of Ramblr in Prahran. (Leo's is now open.)

Nick Stanton

The pizzas will be directly influenced from the slices Stanton ate in New York on his most recent research trip. It’s “a slice version of what Leonardo’s is” but with a new slower 48-hour fermented dough that can handle being cooked, displayed, sliced, and cooked again to serve – the way New York slice is done. “I’m not reinventing the wheel, but hopefully trying to bring something to the table that’s good for our city,” he says.

Melbourne’s few existing New York-style slice shops are mainly open late at night for takeaway, compared to New York itself where slices are eaten at any time of day. Shawcross on Brunswick Street in Fitzroy, for example, doesn’t open until 5pm, “which is a sign they probably sell to the footy crowd and people on their way home from smashing cocktails at the Black Pearl,” says Stanton.

Despite Leo’s 30-seat bar behind the slice counter, Stanton says “it would really be nice to feed people not … just when they’re drunk”.

Melbourne has a hell of a lot of great pizza options, but with young chefs lovingly carrying it to new shores, Stanton is confident the pizza market will continue to grow.

“If you do something good, you’re not a cowboy, you put a bit of passion into it and tick all the boxes of good ingredients, everyone should want to eat it.

This article was first published in foodservice's July 2019 issue. Read the digital magazine here.