The Nicolini family have been affectionately referred to as the Pizza Kings of Melbourne since their humble beginnings with Pizza Espresso in 1997. Repeatedly voted the city’s best Pizzeria, they successfully revolutionized thick, cheap and greasy pizzas to “designer” pizzas with thinner, crispier crusts topped with gourmet ingredients. The business was subsequently sold in 2003 and the brothers moved onto trendier grounds to open Carlton Espresso in the same year, followed by nearby D.O.C. in 2007. The pizza story didn’t end there; with the opening of +39 and Espressino in 2009.
+39 stood out from her sisters and captured our attention when we heard they were voted the Best Pizzeria of 2010 by The Age Epicure. It must be quite obvious by now that we are big time suckers for award winners and never mind that it is now 2011, this pizza joint needed to be ticked off our list. Reservations are accepted at +39 which is a rare find these days with so many other restaurants snubbing this practice just because they can or just because it oozes snob appeal.
Located just a stone’s throw away from picturesque Hardware Lane, +39 is hard to miss on Little Bourke Street with an ever present queue extending onto the footpath. We chose a Thursday night for a 6pm seating and as expected +39 runs on two main seating times so we had to return the table by 8pm which was cool. Upon stepping into the restaurant until we left, we were faced with an Italian “nonno” (grandpa) who had severe bouts of grumpiness throughout the night. I dare say he has no share in the business as any right minded owner would be elated to own such a successful business.
It’s a tight and an uncomfortable squeeze at +39 with hardly any space between the tables and the skinny waitstaff must have perfected gliding sideways when passing through. We were not happy with our tiny table and one of us got up to ask “nonno” if we could move to a nearby table that was bigger and before he could utter a word he was halted and motioned to stay where he was. Knowing exactly what we wanted, “nonno” instructed the staff to set up a bigger table for us. We were just waved away when we made a thank you gesture. His quick response was a delight but the way he portrayed it was shockingly rude. We were seated at last and thank goodness our Spanish waitress was chirpy and friendly. The other staff who came by now and then were horrendous.
The menu is substantial with quite a few pizza options and a small pasta section. There are also Italian cold meats and cheese tasting platters. We started with some refreshing Blood Orange Granitas then onto some Buffalo Mozzarella with Cherry Tomatoes and Basil. The Mozzarella was creamy and soft; absolutely no complaints. The salads we ordered sounded appealing but were nothing you cant attempt at home. The Radicchio Salad had meagre strips of pear and not even a whisper of truffle honey. The Rucola Salad was just that – a Rucola Salad. The Pasta Gamberi, Tiger Prawns and Asparagus in Napoli Sauce however was very nice. The sauce was light but packed with flavours with nice bites of pinenut grains and juicy prawns. The complimentary chilli in oil was not spared at all and it went very well with the pasta.
The pizzas then came out one by one. First up was the Broccoli Pizza topped with anchovies, pinenuts and mozzarella. Second was the board special Granchio with blue swimmer crabs, zucchini flowers, taleggio and cherry tomatoes. The final pizza was the Gamberi with prawns, zucchini, cherry tomatoes and mozzarella. When we went to pick up a slice each, to our horror the centre just flopped down and the ingredients slid off the base; what was left looked like soggy dough. The pizza bases were a disaster to say the least; the great flavours and fresh ingredients sadly did nothing to make up for the sodden centres. Eating pizzas is never a neat affair but for it to be messy because of a mushy base then it’s a cardinal sin. The only consolation was to fold each piece in half so we could get some of the crusty edge.
As it was our first time dining at +39, we weren’t sure if we were just plain unlucky or if that was their standard fare. Reading through other reviews, it is now apparent that many have experienced soggy bases. Perhaps The Age Epicure scored a very crusty base or perhaps their definition of a great pizza is totally different to ours. At times like this, great company and interesting conversations may be the only saviour to a bad meal and fortunately this was the case for us. We even stayed on and made sure we ordered three serves of the self proclaimed “Best Tiramisu in Melbourne”. The sponge was dry, the cream was foamy and the serves were tiny; brazen claims with no deliverance. I have to also add that “nonno” took our dessert order in complete silence and scooted off before we could even order our coffees. We resigned to the fact that there was no point getting ourselves all flustered over an individual who purely enjoyed seeing his diners squirm.
Would we return to +39 after that unpleasant ordeal? I think the answer is loud and clear but on a good note, we are on the lookout for the next award winner.