Where: Leonardo’s Pizza Palace, 29 Grattan Street Carlton
What: The best, and maybe the only, Chinese pizza you’ll ever have
Who: Four’n Twenty Vegetarian, Gingko Leaf Girl, Beer Jenga Master, Publishing Whisperer
Bloat score: 3 – I could have balanced a glass of wine on my bloated stomach
If you think about ‘fusion food’ and tandoori chicken pizza in the same breath, you need to visit Leonardo’s Pizza Palace and try its Chinese bolognese pizza, which tastes decidedly better than it sounds.
Fans of now-closed South Yarra casual fine diner Ramblr would’ve been relieved to learn that its Chinese bolognese on thick-cut noodles migrated with its owners northside to Leonardo’s Pizza Palace, with the thick-cut noodles swapped out for pizza dough. Taking over from the delightfully old and daggy pizza-by-metre place that used to sit in its stead, Leonardo has retained its predecessor’s timber panelled walls but is now all moody lighting and leather booths tucked into unseen nooks – it’s a little too noisy for anyone to hear anything, but it has a charm.
Although the Chinese bolognese pizza was all I wanted to try when I eventually made my way to Leonardo’s, my first visit was more restrained on account of wanting to follow my intolerances. I figured the beef mince cooked in a reduction of gochujang (fermented chilli paste), Shaoxing wine and soy-infused stock – a handy list of three high-histamine ingredients if there ever was one – would cause me to bloat faster than a balloon in my stomach, so I played it moderately safe when I visited alongside Four’n Twenty Vegetarian, who is termed such after I once persuaded her against eating a Four’n Twenty pie under the influence of alcohol, reasoning that she should at least break her vegetarianism with higher-quality meat. She was incredibly grateful the next day.
The first thing we noticed upon stepping into Leonardo’s Pizza Palace was how hot it was. We were stationed directly in front of a high wall heater and despite our weak protestations from gradually advancing heat stroke, the waitstaff couldn’t do much as a family was sitting directly below it, obstructing their path to it. Only once the family left did the heating revert to a regular temperature. But keep this in mind – don’t wear a turtleneck as I did.
Between Four’n Twenty Vegetarian’s penchant for plants and my inability to eat tomatoes, we were a little stuck on which pizzas to share. Four’n Twenty Vegetarian was already helping out by agreeing to share gluten-free pizza bases in a nod to my wheat intolerance. In the end, we followed neither of our dietary requirements.
But first, appetisers – neither of us could go past the mozzarella sticks. It was a fairly generous serve with four immaculately crumbed mini logs of sticky, melt-in-your-mouth mozzarella encased within. It came with a side of pizza sauce, which was essentially napoli sauce, which Four’n Twenty Vegetarian availed herself of and which I assiduously avoided because of the aforementioned intolerance to tomatoes.
For reasons I’ve now forgotten, we decided to get the capricciosa special with artichoke, ham, fior di latte, mushrooms and an olive tapenade. Four’n Twenty Vegetarian must have relented to having meat to fit in with my intolerances and I must have hid from her the fact that half of those ingredients were high in histamines anyway (ham, mushrooms, olives). To top it all off, it came on a tomato base, so we really shouldn’t have bothered.
I enjoyed this but it didn’t knock my socks off. Four’n Twenty Vegetarian bequeathed me all her sheets of ham, so I can attest to the high quality of them, and I enjoyed the chargrilled artichokes, with their pleasant tartness, but the saltiness I was expecting from the olive tapenade wasn’t there. Leonardo’s has a quaint habit of serving its pizzas with a cup of ranch dressing for dipping your pizza slice into, an American practice that not all Americans can get around. Half the time I forgot it was there, and half the time I used it, pleasantly surprised and mildly disgusted in equal proportions.
I remember why we ordered the jalapeno pizza with fermented pepper and a cheese blend – it sounded as though it wasn’t on a tomato base. Alas, it was. I really should use my words next time. I enjoyed this more – the thin-cut slices of jalapeno provided welcome zings of heat in every bite, although of course I topped it off with more chilli oil that I’d requested on the side.
The gluten-free bases were more akin to regular bases than anything I’d tasted before, with their lightly charred edges and doughy insides. I’m typically used to thin gluten-free bases, which I like, but these were a welcome change.
We also ordered the broccolini salad with sugarsnaps, toasted almonds, macadamia cream and pecorino because, health, but it certainly didn’t work out that way – a sea of grated pecorino blanketed the crisp and firm broccolini, with the macadamia cream adding a surprising richness to something that I thought would cut through the richness of the pizzas. I felt like a child that was being secretly force-fed veggies under the cover of cheese.
Because it did end up being a high-histamine dinner, I ended up with two bloats – not a wholly bad outcome for a meal that included mozzarella sticks and tomato bases. But this only spurred me on to visit a second time so I could throw all caution to the wind and finally get my hands on that Chinese Bolognese pizza.
I visited Leonardo’s the second time with Gingko Leaf Girl and Beer Jenga Master – members of Fine Dining Club – and Publishing Whisperer, who is a treasure trove of industry secrets due to her hallowed position as editor-in-chief at a publishing trade magazine.
We started off this time with an appetiser on the specials’ board – the pepperoni and mortadella croquette. It came in a serve of six but the four of us liked it so much, we split the remaining two. It’s hard for me to say anything bad about a deep-fried breadcrumbed ball of potato and meat and this time is no different. It did, like everything at Leonardo’s, upend what you’d expect from an Italian staple. The balls were served on a jalapeno-rich special chilli sauce that tasted akin to a spiced Big Mac sauce – like heaven, basically – while cumulative bites of the croquettes yielded some residual heat at the end.
Our remaining items appeared on our table in a somewhat disjointed order. The fried brussel sprouts with bacon, parmesan and caesar dressing appeared before both pizzas and by the time we’d polished it off, neither pizza had arrived. These brussel sprouts were, again, not the vegetation you’d order if you cared about your health but seeing I don’t hang out with such dull people, they were unanimously loved by the table. Crisp and caramelised, the brussel sprouts were the perfect vessel for the creamy parmesan and caesar dressing, while the diced bits of fried bacon complemented the crunch of the brussel sprout leaves. Social propriety stopped me from emptying the entire bowl on to my plate.
Finally, our pizzas arrived.
This word is overused in food writing but there’s no other word to describe the highly awaited Chinese bolognese pizza: umami. Pleasingly salty, the beef mince in the Chinese bolognese reminded me of the stir-fried ground beef cooked in salty fermented soybean paste that tops zha jiang mian, a famous noodle dish from Beijing and one of my favourite noodle dishes (Houhai Dumpling House does a mean one). Gingko Leaf Girl’s brilliant palate ascertained that the beef had in fact been marinated in shacha sauce, a Chinese condiment made up of soy bean oil, shallots and dried shrimp. The East Asian-inspired flavours worked a treat on the white sauce cheesy base – a tomato one would’ve only overpowered the subtle garlicky and spicy notes of the shacha sauce.
The Chinese bolognese pizza split the group right down the middle – Publishing Whisperer and I loved it, while Beer Jenga Master and Gingko Leaf Girl didn’t. Beer Jenga Master thought the Chinese bolognese tasted like beef bolognese with too many beef stock cubes, while Gingko Leaf Girl thought it needed something fresh or tart to break up its richness. Publishing Whisperer and I were impervious to their criticisms.
One thing we could all agree on was the asymmetrical spread of the Chinese bolognese topping. Instead of being evenly distributed across each slice, blobs of ingredients were concentrated in certain corners – rendering other surfaces completely devoid of anything but cheese. Publishing Whisperer observed that this affected the structural integrity of the Chinese bolognese pizza and rendered the pointy ends of the pizza too floppy, but Gingko Leaf Girl liked the floppiness and didn’t mind the unadorned crusts.
To offset all the meat we’d had, we also ordered the veggie pizza that had Swiss chard, kale, broccoli, eggplant and macadamia cream on a tomato base. I don’t recall much about this pizza, unmemorable as it was, but I remember Beer Jenga Master enjoying it so maybe I was too enamoured by the Chinese bolognese pizza.
My second visit to Leonardo’s yielded even more bloats at four, so I’ve averaged out the bloats to three bloats across two visits. I would return, but only for the divisive wonder that is the Chinese bolognese pizza – everything else I tried proved fine but not memorable enough to warrant a return visit. Oh and the brussel sprouts. I’d return in a heartbeat for them.
Leonardo’s Pizza Palace is open from 5pm to 12am Monday to Wednesday, from 5pm to 1am on Thursday, from 12pm to 1am Friday to Saturday and from 12pm to 11.30pm on Sunday.