Joe Kavanagh is a rarity. After years working in corporate finance, he did what so many nine-to-fivers dream of but seldom act on: he gave it all up. And became a pizza chef.

He was 32 when he approached his friend Simon Liston about becoming a pizzaiolo, and began “learning the craft” at Liston’s South Yarra Fratellino Pizzeria.

Three-and-a-half years on, Kavanagh and Liston have arrived in the north with their casual Fitzroy eatery Bontempo, which means “good times” in Italian. It opened in June in a giant space on Brunswick Street, formerly home to Palookaville.

Designer Suzie Court oversaw a “total refurb”, including two entirely new kitchens on opposite sides of the modern and unassuming quasi-industrial 120-seat hall. Ambient black-and-white photographs by local artist Tom Ross hang on exposed brick walls – one depicts an east-facing landscape of the Collingwood skyline, engulfed by a dreary, overcast sky. It’s surely a subliminal ploy to get you ready for some hearty Italian food, of which Bontempo’s is in no short supply.

There’s a strong Fratellino legacy at Bontempo. “The pizza is essentially the same,” says Kavanagh. “We’ve brought that product to the northside.”

When you walk in, you’ll likely see Kavanagh and two or three other chefs diligently preparing pizzas along a neat assembly line, starting with the white-marble kneading station and ending at the glowing white-tiled Valoriani wood-fire pizza oven, imported from Italy.

Kavanagh hand-stretches his 48-hour-old, thin-crust Neapolitan bases and blasts them for around 90 seconds in 450-degree heat, artfully spinning them around the oven with a long steel paddle. He estimates the kitchen can churn out up to “three or four hundred pizzas in an evening”.

Options range from benchmarks such as Margherita, neapolitana or capricciosa, to regional adaptations such as the Fratellino (with bocconcini, salami and olives) or The Fitzroy (mozzarella, ham, salami, mushrooms, capsicum, onion and pineapple) to the the most native of all, The Aussie, with mozzarella, ham, bacon and an egg. All can be prepared on a gluten-free base and with vegan cheese.

Non-pizza options include pasta, rich homemade gnocchi ai quattro formaggi, and chargrilled swordfish and calamari fritti. For dolce, go for the brown or white chocolate calzone, or Nan’s homemade cassata, based on a decades-old Liston family recipe, with almond, chocolate and cherry ripe.

Kavanagh and Liston grew up together in Ballarat and Bontempo maintains ties with the area. The sugar gum used in their wood-fire ovens is chopped and delivered once a month by Kavanagh’s dad, who sources it from an uncle’s farm in Skipton. The “Bont” pizza is topped with mozzarella, various herbs and whisky-infused pulled pork that’s supplied by his brother-in-law’s Ballarat-based charcuterie Salt Kitchen.

“The pork speaks for itself,” says Kavanagh. “I know it sounds a little gimmicky, but it’s legit.”

Bontempo
416 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy
(03) 9417 7052

Hours
Sun to Thurs 5pm–9:30pm
Fri & Sat 5pm–10pm

bontempo.com.au