“Before the First World War, salt was very expensive and pizza makers in Naples preferred going to fishermen to ask for seawater [instead of buying salt],” says Naples-born, Adelaide-based pizzaiolo Ettore Bertonati.

Very few restaurants in the world make Neapolitan pizza with seawater. But joining their ranks is Madre, the hotly anticipated pizzeria by the Pizzateca crew (co-owner Tony Mitolo will still spend his time at the McLaren Vale restaurant while his partner Suzanne Pagnozzi is on-ground in the CBD). After a slight delay (due to some tardy tabletops) it opened in early August in the former Feliciano site on Gilbert Street.

Psychedelic signage (by Anthony de Leo of neighbouring Voice Design) marks the spot. Step onto swish pink-marble tiles and move through blush-pink surrounds that slope up to an all-blue kitchen. There, a Madre (Virgin Mary) statue that was covered in plastic when we last visited has been unveiled (alongside a second, which Bertonati bought to look over the kitchen). The fit-out was designed in collaboration with Chris Rowlands from RAD-Studio. And while we don’t usually wax lyrical about toilets, trust us, you’ll get snap-happy over these.

Back to those pizzas. Bertonati, who heads the kitchen (and who has a PhD in chemistry), didn’t hit the seawater sweet spot by trial-and-error recipe testing. Importing seawater (from Puglia in Italy’s south) is very expensive. “It’s been a big job – on paper – to arrive at this point,” he says. “I have a book that I’ve been trying out the recipe in all different ways.”

Surfing the web he found supplier Steralmar, which bills itself as the “only Italian company to offer microbiologically pure seawater fit for human consumption”. Some might raise an eyebrow at the decision to import seawater, but when imported San Marzano tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella are topping pizzas all over town, why not? Plus, using local seawater is illegal, says Bertonati.

It might sound like a marketing ploy, but Mediterranean seawater has a different salinity to what laps on our shores, according to Bertonati. “There are 93 elements in it – not just salt – that help keep the gluten structure strong enough for the fermentation time we want for our pizza,” he says, which makes for a more “natural and nutritious” product.

The dough combines Tipo 00 flour, seawater and a sourdough starter – and its salt content is almost half of that in conventional dough. At first bite it immediately seems lighter and airier than Pizzateca’s more crisp “Oztalian” pizzas. A leopard-spotted crust means it’s well-fermented, says Bertonati, making it easier to digest.

Then there’s the sauce – perhaps the most notable flavour difference compared to Pizzateca, where the red-sauce pizzas are slathered in a sweet, thick homemade sugo (we saw how it’s done earlier this year) to which oil, oregano and salt are added. At Madre the sauce is canned San Marzano tomatoes, hand-crushed and salted – that’s it. What results is fresher, more acidic and less labour-intensive.

Seawater aside, Bertonati says, “What we’re doing is certified by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana – we follow their rules exactly.” On the menu are six minimally topped pizzas including a marinara; a fior di latte-topped margherita (plus an alternative with buffalo mozzarella); a pork sausage and fried eggplant number; and another with fresh mortadella, pepper pecorino, ricotta and pistachio pesto. Plus three calzones: one wood-fired, two deep-fried.

The pizza montenara is something you won’t find at many other pizzerias around town. The dough is half-cooked in the deep-fryer, topped, then finished off in the Naples-imported wood oven (which also turns out sourdough made with seawater). There’ll also be a single monthly pasta dish; first up is one with potato and provola (smoked mozzarella).

Good things come in threes here: there’s a trio of tiny pizze montenara, frittura (“fried things”, Bertonati says), or morzilli (palm-sized pizza-bread sandwiches that are “very light and almost like a shell”).

The drinks list is a manageable one. Wines are Italian-made or Italian varietals, locally made, and all come by the glass and bottle. A chestnut pilsner is pouring from the beer-tap system, and the tight Italo-centric cocktail list leans on local spirits such as gin from Gilbert Street neighbour Prohibition and Never Never.

57 Gilbert Street, Adelaide
Tue to Sat 5pm–late