Australia's Johnny Di Francesco beat pizzaiolos from all over the world in the Pizza World Championships in Italy. So what's his secret?
To become a world champion in pizza making, you have just one chance to get it right. One pizza, one panel of judges, plenty of brow-furrowing questions on how you made the thing.
"I just kept thinking to myself, 'Make it like you're in the restaurant and it's for a customer'," explains Johnny Di Francesco, the Melbourne pizzaiolo who took out the top prize in the Pizza World Championship in Parma, Italy, last week. "I was the only one to make my dough by hand, everyone else used machines. I think that helped."
Di Francesco has invited me to taste his winning dish, a seemingly humble margherita, at his restaurant, 400 Gradi in Brunswick. Patrons slap him on the back in congratulation as staff furiously roll out dough in preparation for the wood fired oven at the heart of the establishment.
What follows is the most technical conversation imaginable about one of the country's most popular takeaway dishes.
The world championship rules state the pizza must be 35cm or less in diameter, with a crust that puffs up by 2cm. Only certain ingredients, such as cheese, peeled tomatoes, basil and olive oil, can be used.
Di Francesco, who goes by the nickname Mr Pizza, explains that the doughy base must never be lifted off the counter by hand, as it attracts flour to the bottom. Flour burns in the oven.
Flour is a consuming passion for Di Francesco. He sources it from a long-established mill near Padua. His custom is appreciated, and the flour company has put Di Francesco's drawn face on its packaging, which stares at us as we eat.
The tomatoes are imported from Italy too, although the basil is grown locally. Great care is also taken over the buffalo mozzarella and olive oil.
"I used to run a takeaway business, but I felt I was wasting away there," Di Francesco said. "I wanted to create something special."
He picks up a paper receipt and holds it rigid. "People think a pizza should be like this. A slice that's completely flat. My answer to that is, are we eating a pizza here, or a biscuit?"
So what does the best pizza in the world taste like? In a word, splendid. It is a worthy winner in a competition that attracted 600 entrants from 35 countries.
The tomatoes are sweet and zesty, although Di Francesco just adds a dash of salt, not sugar. The crust is perfectly cooked, while the basil and cheese combine beautifully. Unlike many pizzas, it's not overly filling.
"People think a margherita is easy, but it's a hard pizza to make," says Di Francesco. "There's nowhere to hide with the flavours. Some margheritas are just drowning with cheese. That's what I've tried to avoid."
Move aside, Naples and Rome. Mr Pizza from Brunswick has trumped you both.
Photo: Johnny Di Francesco serves up a prize-winning pizza. Photograph: Laura Owsianka/The Guardian