My expectations were high – I had been to two of Johnny Di Francesco’s restaurants and never been disappointed; even so, I couldn’t help but wonder if he could do it again – had he spread himself too thinly, could he maintain top-notch quality across three restaurant locations?
Third in the chain of the ‘Gradi’ restaurants, the Essendon dining experience is different to the others, which only added to my wondering.
The Brunswick restaurant is very traditional in its Italian style, but now even more so with its updated luxe interior. It is nestled in the Brunswick restaurant precinct with a constant flow of patrons and passers-by and its décor as well as its food entices customers through the door.
Gradi at Crown is exactly what you would expect within the large casino complex. It is massive, ultra-modern in its Italian décor and attracts celebrities, from world number one sporting personalities to movie and television stars.
Essendon Gradi is set on the ground level of a very modern looking apartment building, not far from a shopping strip and in quite a suburban setting. Its location would probably prohibit top celebrities from attending but it is ideally situated for those in the northern and western suburbs of Melbourne.
Kosta Kamboukos, who has been restaurant manager since the opening in November, said, “400 Gradi Essendon has a different vibe (to the other Gradis). We are open mainly for dinner (Thursday – Sunday we are open for lunch), and have an upstairs large private dining room, which allows us to cater for various events.”
Kosta is right about the Essendon premises having a different vibe. I have loved my dining experiences at all of the Gradi restaurants, but this one has a more ‘friendly’ vibe. It was obvious when I ate there that I wasn’t the only one who felt that this was a very friendly place. I couldn’t believe how busy the restaurant was for a Tuesday evening, but Kosta informed me that this was the quietest night they have had in the two months since opening.
The first thing you will notice when walking through the door (watch that first step) is the décor. “Beautiful isn’t it? Designed by Lombard and Jack based in South Melbourne,” said Kosta. It is lighter and brighter than the Brunswick Gradi and has much more of a family and friendly feeling than Gradi in Crown. I find it difficult to put my finger on exactly how to describe the style, but it is somewhere between industrial and rustic.
When it comes to the menu, it is HUGE. It has everything you would expect in meal type from an Italian restaurant, but plenty more. I asked Kosta what his favourite item on the menu was – his answer, “Easy. Margherita Verace! I have been eating Johnny’s fabulous pizza creation since he opened in Lygon Street all those years ago. I have tried everything on the menu, yet I always go back to what I believe is the best pizza in the world!” Yes, I have to agree. My first sampling of 400 Gradi food was with the famous Margherita Verace pizza and I can’t ever visit without having one again, so it was an obvious choice when deciding what I was going to eat at Essendon Gradi.
After a discussion with my pleasant and knowledgeable waiter, who tempted my tastebuds with every explanation of the selection of food, I decided on a combination salumi and formaggi platter, and the cheese stuffed fig. For main course, the fish of the day was dory served with stuffed zucchini flower, tomato parfait and black squid ink, as well as, of course, the Margherita Verace pizza.
While waiting for my meal to be served, I took note of the wait staff and how they were interacting with other patrons. There was not one patron who didn’t have a huge smile on their face, obviously very pleased with the information they were being given about the food and also obviously pleased with what was being served to them. If their service was the same as mine, and at a guess and from their reactions, I would say it was, then all the wait staff are excellent – very informative, knowledgeable and attentive but not at all intrusive.
I mentioned this to Kosta and posed the question about the level of training their staff might have. “Thank you! We are a family here; all of our staff are passionate about what they do. They have extensive knowledge of the products we offer; part of their training is trying every item on the menu. This way they understand taste, flavour, and texture. Training is ongoing; we are always learning, evolving and growing. We are always trying to perfect our service; we want our patrons experience to be a relaxing and memorable occasion.”
With Head Chef, Darron Deha, creating new and exciting dishes on a daily basis, it is a credit to the wait staff that they are completely up to date with new menu items.
As with the other Gradi restaurants, I found that the cured meats and cheeses served for entrée were delightfully fresh and packed with flavour, served with cornichons and all set on beautifully crisp Sardinian ‘carasau’ bread. My waiter had suggested this be served with a garlic pizza so that the warmth of the pizza made the flavours of the meats and cheeses even more pronounced – he was right!
It is probably surprising, but with all my food and restaurant review experience, I have never tasted a fig! After tasting this one, with the warm cheese oozing from the figs delicate pink centre paired with the sharpness of the pink grapefruit, I can tell you now that I am hooked on this delicacy. It was absolutely beautiful to look at, delicious and full of flavour – in fact – to die for.
Everyone loves pizza, and Johnny’s pizzas would be a reason a lot of diners would visit one of the 400 Gradi’s. Catering to absolutely everyone from families, friendly catch ups, business meetings and parties, the range of pizzas includes vegan, gluten free and vegetarian options. “People come here for the pizza no doubt about that. Margherita and Caserta are very popular. A lot of customers that come back for the Gnocchi, they say it’s just how Nonna makes it!” said Kosta.
While my Margherita Verace pizza was absolutely scrumptious, hot, with delicious oozy buffalo mozzarella, vibrant basil and rich, red, tangy tomato, I strongly urge you to try one of the other meals, maybe the special of the day.
My main meal of the dory with stuffed zucchini flowers and tomato parfait was equal to what you would get at any top inner city restaurant and was quite a surprise to me in a suburban location. The fish was cooked to flaky perfection, the brightly coloured zucchini flower stuffed with prawns looked (and tasted) pure perfection and the tomato parfait was rich in flavour and smooth in texture.
My indulgence in all this beautiful food had left me with little room for a dessert, but my waiter tempted me to try the home made gelatos. I was served a selection of flavours – mango, strawberry, mixed berry, lemon (always my favourite) and their new experimental flavour – margherita-pizza. Yes, you read it right, margherita-pizza gelato!
As I have just mentioned, lemon gelato is always my favourite and this one did not disappoint (I could have eaten a bucket of it!), but the other flavours were also delicious, creamy, full of fruitiness and vibrantly coloured. Even the margherita-pizza flavour, which I must admit I was quite apprehensive about, was delicious. I won’t go into detail about the flavour because I don’t think it can be described in a way that would do it justice, just go and try it – you will be very pleasantly surprised.
My expectations had been very high, and I had wondered about Johnny’s ability to maintain quality over three restaurants, but having met Mr Pizza Perfect, Johnny Di Francesco, and knowing his passion for food, his restaurants, life, I shouldn’t have doubted him for a minute. 400 Gradi Essendon is a credit to him, Kosta and the staff – I will be back!
400 Gradi Essendon – 110 Keilor Road, Essendon