Chef Johnny Di Francesco has taken the craft of pizza-making to the masses on land and sea, and hopefully one day, the sky. The pizza master speaks with BeanScene about becoming a world champion and the strength of Neapolitan coffee.
When Australia’s best barista takes to the world stage to compete in the annual World Barista Championship (WBC) against national champions, they usually travel with an entourage of coaches, colleagues, and supporters. When Melbourne chef and restaurateur Johnny Di Francesco travelled to Parma, Italy in 2014 for the Pizza World Championship, he flew solo. Armed with confidence and a love for pizza-making, Johnny fronted the judges with his signature Margherita pizza, and came out on top against 600 competitors from 35 countries.
The news spread quickly. World media picked up Johnny’s unlikely win, with headlines reading, “World’s best pizza not in Italy”, and “Australian chef wins prize for best Pizza Margherita”. Overnight, Johnny Di Francesco became a household name.
“I could never have imagined the reaction I would receive across the country or the world. It’s a competition that’s been around for 28 years and to be the first Australian to go to Italy and win was so memorable,” Johnny says.
Unlike former WBC winners who use their title to drive their consulting career and new ventures, Johnny used his new-found fame to focus on developing his existing restaurant, 400 Gradi, which he opened in the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick in 2008.
“I got my name on a bag of flour [Stagioni Pizza Napoletana], but that’s about it,” Johnny says. “I still get a lot of recognition overseas because they appreciate the fact that I celebrate tradition in my pizza-making. It’s one thing to win a competition, but it’s another to take what you did to win and bring it into the real world to run a business. What I did, however, was bring the two together. I didn’t separate them. I think the reward from winning the competition has been the opportunity to take the 400 Gradi brand to heights I probably never thought were possible.”
Growing up in an Italian family – his father from Caserta near Naples and his mum from Isole Eolie off the southeast coast of Sicily – meant that Johnny was constantly surrounded by traditional Italian food and, naturally, espresso.
“My older brother used to make a zabaglione mix with sugar until it became creamy and then we’d add coffee to it and have it in the morning. That was our breakfast and my first experience of coffee at age nine or 10,” Johnny recalls. “After that, I really started drinking coffee at age 16 because I was surrounded by older chefs who drank it in the morning or after a staff meal. For them, coffee in a cafeteria was a God send.”
Johnny says it took him a good year before he started to understand why he was drinking coffee at all – part enjoyment, part addiction, he says, but now it’s for the true appreciation of flavour.
In Australia, Johnny enjoys a straight espresso each day without sugar, “the only way to really identify a good coffee”, he says. However, while in Italy, which he frequents for work and to visit his son playing professional soccer in Genoa, Johnny always drinks a cappuccino with a brioche first, followed by an espresso at a traditional coffee bar.
“Australians enjoy lattes with their eggs and smashed avo, but in Italy it’s always about the espresso or cappuccino and sweet brioche. It’s just part of the culture,” he says.
One of Johnny’s most memorable coffee experiences lies down south in Naples, at a small traditional coffee shop called Chalet Ciro.
“The first time I ever went there, a friend of mine took me. I was looking around at the old lever coffee machine and decor thinking how awesome it was. I ordered an espresso. It came out straight away, and as you do, I dived straight in. I put the espresso straight to my mouth and burnt it. My friend laughed at me and said: ‘I need to teach you how to drink a real Neapolitan coffee.’”
With another espresso ordered, this time Johnny’s friend took a spoon, broke the crema and wiped it on the edge of the hot coffee cup and said “that’s where you drink from now”.
Above the coffee machine was a sign in Italian saying “warning, the coffee cups are extremely hot”. What they do, Johnny explains, is keep the cups in a hot bain-marie of water. Neapolitans don’t want to drink their coffee cold. The coffee is extracted at normal temperature and keeps its structure in the hot cup. “This time, I dipped my spoon into the crema and drunk from that one spot that cooled a little, and it was one of the best coffees I’ve ever had. It was just so smooth,” Johnny says.
In Naples, the majority of shops serve coffee zuccherato, meaning espresso comes with one sugar included. The other interesting coffee locals enjoy, Johnny says, is primo di caffé, where the first part of the coffee extraction is saved, mixed with sugar, and whisked until it becomes a sugary cream served on top of espresso.
“It really is unbelievable,” Johnny says. “People say Napoli has the best coffee, but it’s not so much the coffee that makes it so good, it’s the water. Water makes a big difference. It has a pH level of 7 and soft water hardness of around 30, so you’ve got an extremely well-balanced water supply.”
Johnny says the water balance is so good he’s even taken to replicating the same pH and hardness levels as Napoli at his new restaurant in Dallas, Texas thanks to a special filtration system. He hopes to do the same in Australia.
“Coffee is extremely important in our restaurants and water plays such an important role, which is why we need to perfect it,” he says. “Coffee can be the last contact you have with guests after a meal. A bad coffee is disappointing, and Melburnians know their coffee. We’re the coffee capital of Australia, probably the world.”
Johnny serves Vittoria Coffee at his 400 Gradi venues. He is a firm believer the perfect coffee is a combination of having a good blend and the ability of the barista to produce a consistently good cup.
“It’s like when I talk about my cooking and making pizzas, you can have the best ingredients in the world but if your dough is not made correctly then it means nothing. I think the same when it comes to coffee,” Johnny says.
As for his own coffee making skills, Johnny relies on his stovetop coffee marker at home. He still recalls visiting Mocopan’s original coffee shop with his mum, buying fresh whole beans from the in-store silos, and watching his mother grind the coffee at home, “just the way she liked it”.
In keeping with “old school Italian hospitality”, over the years Johnny says he would drink up to 20 coffees a day thanks to continuous meetings and most people saying, “I’ll have a coffee if you have one”. For health reasons, he’s cut back, and it’s the same with pizza.
“I used to eat pizza nearly every day, but now if I eat one pizza a week it’s a lot. I can tell a good pizza from a bad one just by observing the cooking technique and looking at the dough for any defects,” he says.
Johnny has been making pizza since he was 15 years old. Over time, he’s developed his trade and educated Melburnians about the ethos of true Neapolitan pizza, but the one value he’s retained is a commitment to quality.
“The only thing I never discount on is the quality of ingredients we use. I only use raw materials and we make everything in-house: our bread, our pasta, pizza dough. It’s a bit annoying when you hear that people have the perception that big means lower quality and that we would [import]our ingredients in,” Johnny says.
“We invest into research and development. My staff can’t believe how much effort I go to. I’ll travel to Italy just to ensure we have the right oil or tomato. Price is irrelevant until we understand how good the quality is.”
Over the past 12 years, the Gradi Group has expanded to include 14 restaurants, including 400 Gradi venues in Kuwait, Bahrain, New Zealand, Texas, and P&O’s Pacific Explorer cruise ship and soon to join Pacific Adventure.
“People assume I must be making a fortune, but I’m not and I say that openly. The more you grow, the less money you make – people don’t understand that. I don’t do it because I want to retire next year. I do it because I actually love what I do. I love teaching and educating people on eating good food. If I’ve done that I know I’ve contributed to society,” Johnny says.
“Restaurant life doesn’t stop. When you open a restaurant, you give up part of your life. I have three kids and I didn’t see them grow up. My eldest daughter is 18 years old and we have a great relationship, but I missed out on so many things because I was committed to growing my business. While people are having a great time on a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, we’re assisting in helping them have a good time.”
This article appears in FULL in the February 2020 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.