There’s something about Naples and the number three. The soft cool stripes of Neapolitan ice cream come in three. Naples itself is the third largest city in Italy. And now, to bring it all home to Melbourne, the newest and third addition to Johnny Di Francesco's wood-fired pizza franchise is 400 Gradi Essendon.
The man himself trained in Naples, which has undoubtedly allowed him to go on to make that award-winning margherita. Perhaps that’s why he went for the restaurant trifecta, adding the Keilor Road restaurant to his Brunswick East and Crown outposts. It seemed only right then, that we gave the ‘third food degree’ to 400 Gradi Essendon with a close interrogation on taste. Every course was under scrutiny. Yet tortuous, it was not.
Begin with the antipasti of chickpea battered oysters, fennel and chives ($4.50 each), and follow with the calamari fritti, watercress and almond aioli ($22). You’ll want to order to share with the chums you’ve carpooled there with — streets have limited parking, not to mention you’re environmentally conscious — so relax back into your seat and take in the shades of moss green and deep wooden browns.
While waiting for your main, sample a glass of vini bianchi. The Monte Tondo Soave ($12) comes from Veneto in northern Italy; it’s close to chardonnay and finishes light and clean. The crowd will also be treating themselves to post-work aperitifs. It’s a fancy casual affair, with dates and families scattered about. The whole venue seats over 200, while upstairs can cater for private crowds, making it an ideal choice for hosting after-work socials.
It would be remiss not to have your secondi feature their wood-fired pizza. It’s what they’re internationally renowned for, after all. By all means, try that world number one margherita, but the ortolano — an eggplant and zucchini-topped vegetarian number ($24) — is moreish and chewy, and comes topped with enough cheese to get bones smiling. Follow with forkfuls of buttery sage, leek and pumpkin ravioli ($24).
No scrupulous sampling would be complete without dessert, and their margherita gelato is an experimental must. The lads will tell you it comes infused with basil and sundried tomatoes. Close those astonished mouths, for they’re jesting — and, really, the recipe is a secret (although we did manage to confirm textures of sponge). Those who prefer less savoury inspired temptations can opt for the fig and mascarpone. There are plans to open a gelato store, Zero Gradi, in Carlton sometime soon, but you should still try and sample as many tastes as possible here first.
Finish your night with a shot of limoncello ($12), as recommended from your hosts. It’s creamy, it’s smooth — and to refuse would go against what Italian hospitality is all about.