If Johnny Di Francesco is anxious about the opening of Gradi at Crown, he isn't showing it. The bright lights of Southbank are a bit different to that of Brunswick East (where his first restaurant, 400 Gradi, resides), but in the kitchen it seems it's all the same. The pizza is still cooked in the same way — at 400 degrees for just 90 seconds — and even though he is now catering for the masses at this riverfront venue, it still tastes just as great. After all, he does make the best in the world.
That prestigious title — the best margherita in the world, according to the official pizza assessors Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana — has blown up the Gradi empire. From the humble Lygon Street outpost to the Crown complex (taking up the space where GAS used to be), this is Gradi 2.0: it's bigger, shinier and totally on show. And on a Tuesday night, all 300 seats are full.
And yep, the pizza is outstanding. You know how it is: crisp and charcoaled, but still chewy when you take a bite. Simple is best, and with all the credentials, it's hard to go past a margherita. But if you don't fancy paying $21 for the bare bones, the caserta will be more satisfying. It comes with the addition of rocket and an 18-month superfine prosciutto on top ($25.50). Not giving into the hype? There are adequate pasta, risotto and main meal options (think seafood, veal and a rack of lamb) as well.
Italians know how to do antipasti like no one else, and Gradi has the start of the meal down to a tee. Fresh imported Italian salumi and cheese (including a flaky raspadura that comes in a bag) is served atop a crispy plate of Sardinian carasau bread. The seafood is fried, and best balanced out with a carpaccio of beef or fish. Fried balls of dough — the montanare fritte — are beacons of light, tasting like savoury doughnuts, served with a 'filling' of mozzarella, gorgonzola, tomato and basil ($15 for three).
It's all very filling stuff — but, please, save room for dessert. There's no shame in sticking to the classics — a jar filled with some extremely stunning tiramisu ($15) awaits — but once you see the calzone, it's game over. This big hunk of sweet-and-savoury is beautiful and dangerous; go for the coffee over the Nutella and ricotta, and as you cut into it, the ooze of coffee cream might see you forget all about award-winning pizzas. Because when every dish is better than the last, it's a special experience. And whether it's in Brunswick East, Crown or Essendon (where a new outpost is soon to open), Gradi tastes just as good.