It’s a telltale sign: over its opening weekend, I had pizza from Bella Brutta in Newtown three times. I guess I’ve been caught out being a mega fan? Not that I was ever going to be heavily opposed to the place: Luke Powell (LP’s Quality Meats) teaming up with Elvis Abrahanowicz and the Porteno team to run a pizzeria? Of course, I was going to be on board.
Never mind that prior to opening, Luke hadn’t really made pizza before (as he mentioned to Gourmet Traveller‘s Emma Breheny in July). As a lifelong overachiever who’s done time at Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Mugaritz, was Tetsuya’s head chef and entered the cooking world far earlier than he was allowed to, that really wasn’t going to be a roadblock. He started test runs at his Chippendale kitchen at LP’s Quality Meats and thought that’d translate to good results once he moved into Bella Brutta’s Newtown space (helpfully, it used to be a pizzeria – remember Mad Pizza’s Ice & Slice?).
At one point, he had 30 iterations of his recipe in play, trying to nail the right formula. He joked that it “killed” him trying to get everything – the flour, the flavour, the consistency – right. If you try the Marinara ($17), topped with optional fior di latte ($3) from Marrickville cheesemakers Vanella, you’ll know that all the troubleshooting paid off brilliantly. The wood-fired pizza has a crust that’s mapped in blisters and puffs, while the San Marzano tomato base is so juicy, sweet and briney – you could imagine downing the tomatoes straight from the can, they’re just pure fruit and salt: flavour uninterrupted. (Luke picked the right tins from his supplier, who had no shortage of San Marzano varieties to choose from.) The garlic hit, the strong lift of oregano and creamy clustering of melted cheese: you didn’t need a single thing more on top.
But if you want to accessorise further with protein and Parmesan, there’s the Pepperoni ($24), which Will ordered: it’s aptly topped with cuts of salami from LP’s Quality Meats, a cross-marketing move that doesn’t overlook flavour at all. The pizza deviates from its emoji pixel form with a quick scatter of fennel seeds, which adds an earthy accent to each slice.
Will’s favourite, though, is the Cime di Rapa ($22), which sets the lemony, bitter sharpness of braised greens against the double cream hit of Vanella’s fior di latte and house-made ricotta. There’s some low-key fermented chilli hanging out in there, too. It’s a lighter number that reminds you that spring is actually here, even if the constant rainclouds and pavement puddles are dulling your excitement about stepping outside. The garlicky greens are proof: there’s actually a sunny side to this season.
For Will, the Mortadella ($25) pizza is the runner-up winner: a choice he enjoyed on his second visit to Bella Brutta. The headlining cured meat is also from LP’s Quality Meats, with the fior di latte cheese and the sliced green olives playing support act. (My number one pick: the marinara with bonus cheese, followed by the Cimi di Rapa.)
There are many good side dishes to stop you from overindulging on crusts and toppings entirely. There’s the Green Tomatoes with Stracciatella ($12), because a pizzeria is probably the last place you should start limiting your curds and calcium intake, particularly when the cheese is kept in check with the cool shock of green tomatoes. I really love the garlicky White Beans ($12) topped with the zippy salsa verde, while the excellent Celery with Sunflower Seed, Celtuce and Pecorino ($14) dish should bump off every average rocket and Parmesan salad you see on a pizzeria menu: it’s punchy and refreshing and is an excellent way to remind you of how good the vegies typically are at LP’s – Luke has always had a strong track record there.
My second visit to Bella Brutta involved extra rounds of the pizzas I loved most, plus gratitude: I wasn’t so defeated by Pizza Belly that dessert was out of the question. (And not just one, but three: we had tiramisu, lemon sorbet and a blood orange ice-cream). No struggle here. Although I hear Elvis’ mum is responsible for the cannoli, which is an extra incentive to plot a revisit.
Speaking of family, Luke’s partner Tania Houghton is running the front of house, and is such a super-friendly presence that you’d give Bella Brutta high marks before you even sat down to eat anything.
Anyway, it’s wild to think that not long ago, Luke was a pizza-making novice. And he hadn’t even stepped foot into Italy, the dish’s place of origin.
But as Bella Brutta shows, none of this has held him back. Plus, his pizza isn’t about pleasing rulebook hardliners. There are a lot of influences that shape what goes into his wood-fired oven. Luke says everyone’s default for good pizza is different: his is Gjelina in LA and Roberta’s in Brooklyn (in fact, his oven is also the same model as Roberta’s – he could see that their version had taken a beating and still held defiantly strong). Elvis’s go-to for good pizza, meanwhile, is Domino’s!
No judgment, though, because Bella Brutta has created a new benchmark for good pizza itself.
It’s something I was reminded of when I reheated leftovers at home: my third run-in with its menu. I lazily shoved the slices in the sandwich press and the extra blast of heat accentuated the garlicky-sweetness of the marinara. Of course, I was done too soon and the leftovers made way for an empty, sauce-smeared plate. I’ll be back for my fourth, fifth and sixth visits and counting. I said I was a Bella Brutta mega fan, didn’t I?