Connie’s Pizza is the new edition to Melbourne’s eternal pizza obsession. It’s a hole-in-the-wall pizza stand inside the rowdy Russell Street bar Heartbreaker, the screwed-up sibling of Gertrude Street’s ratified cocktail bar The Everleigh, owned by Michael Madrusan, a bartender by trade making his first foray into food.
Heartbreaker is a slightly unkempt child of the ’70s – bathed in the seductive neon-red glow of debauchery, shooting pool with friends and blaring rock’n’roll from a jukebox late into the night.
Connie’s Pizza is something of a more wholesome variety: the sweet, loving grandmother, with gifts of nourishment and warmth. A harbour in the tempest of Heartbreaker.
Madrusan named it in honour of his 89-year-old nonnina, who used to make pizza for the family every weekend while he was growing up in Newcastle. Now too old to carry on the tradition, Connie wanted someone in the family to pick up the mantle.
“She wanted someone to take over the reins,” says Madrusan. “I wanted it to be my great ode to nonnina.”
Madrusan has spent the last year getting to know the business – reading books, playing with recipes and spending some time in the kitchen.
“The funny thing about pizza is you don’t have to be good at it, you just have to love it,” he says. “I’m not trying to re-write the book in any way.”
Along with his head chef Michael Dunne, they’ve developed a simple selection of three New York-style pizzas – Cheese, Pepperoni, Sicilian – each made with Caputo flour, sauce made with San Marzano tomatoes and a combination of pecorino and Scamorza bianco mozzarella from Melbourne-based That’s Amore Cheese.
Pizza can be purchased either whole or by the slice (on “shitty white plates,” as Madrusan says), eat in or takeaway, from a small green-tiled ’70s- inspired pizzeria that’s tucked away on a back wall – a subtle but inspired addition to the bar – designed by Madrusan’s long-time collaborator Rhys Gorgol, of TCYK.
For the Pepperoni pizza, Madrusan and Dunne drove out to Istra Smallgoods in Musk, eastern Victoria. “The pepperoni was a real head fuck,” says Madrusan, describing how they blind tasted 32 different salamis before finally deciding to combine two, one hot and one mild.
Madrusan doesn’t have any expectations at this point beyond “taking care of the punters and bringing in new people.”
“I don’t want it to be looked at as a restaurant. I want to see a beer in one hand and a slice in the other,” he says.
The Sicilian pizza is Madrusan’s double ode to Connie, inspired by her weekend recipe. It’s a rectangle deep-pan pizza, slightly thicker and crunchier than the other two. The cheese is layered below the napolitana sauce, which caramelises and slightly sweetens in the oven, like a sugo. And the toppings sit inside the base like an edible bowl of saucy, cheesy soup. Or, as Madrusan puts it, “Like a big hug from your grandma.”
Connie's Pizza at Heartbreaker
234A Russell Street, Melbourne
(03) 9041 0856
Mon to Thur 5pm–3am