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Rocco’s mission to save the world from bad pizza

The Forager

With a cult following for his three-day fermented sourdough pizzas, Rocco DeAngelis plans to expand Rocco’s Pizza at Kidman Park into numerous stores, starting with a boutique sourdough tasting room set to open on Grange Road in April.

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Since establishing Rocco’s Pizza restaurant on Findon Road in 2017, Rocco DeAngelis has gained a following of customers who travel from all over Adelaide for his traditionally fermented and wood-fired sourdough pizzas.

DeAngelis is a “sourdough master” who fell in love with pizza-making about 20 years ago, when he spent two years travelling across Italy to learn the traditional art of making fermented sourdough pizza.

At his western suburbs pizzeria, bases are made with only three ingredients: water, stone-ground flour and salt.

The dough is inoculated with a mother bacteria and fermented for three days, during which time the bacteria break down and “pre-digest” some of the sugars and carbohydrates in the wheat.

The pizza chef, who is intolerant of yeast himself, claims he’s perfected the ancient art of making a sourdough pizza base that is better for the digestive system.

Some people who suspect their bodies are sensitive to gluten may instead be intolerant to fructans – a type of carbohydrate present in wheat products. This can be particularly true for people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

Research and testing by Monash University has shown that some sourdough breads are low in FODMAP content, yet all sourdoughs are different and there is no certainty without scientific testing.

“What’s making you feel unwell? Is it the dough, or could it be the baker’s yeast, the added sugars, gluten and preservatives present in so many commercial wheat products,” DeAngelis says.

Rocco’s Pizza is a no-frills restaurant, adorned with DeAngelis’ own photos from his pizza journey. Patrons dining here are made to feel as if they are guests in the chef’s living room.

With rolls of paper towels instead of plates or cutlery, pizza is served uncut on corrugated cardboard, so as not to make the base soggy. Customers are provided with scissors to cut their own slices, as it’s done in Rome. The focus is all on the food.

Rocco’s Pizza at Kidman Park. Photo: Ben Kelly.

With t-shirts emblazoned with “saving the world from bad pizza” and aprons with “no ham and pineapple”, DeAngelis says he wants to educate the community about pizza in the same fashion that a culture has built around coffee and wine in Adelaide. And now, he’s looking to do it on a larger scale.

“I’ve got no prejudice against a fusion of pork with tropical fruit, but you just mustn’t put things on pizza that are junk – using processed meat and sugar – when a pizza can be great simply with fresh tomato sauce,” DeAngelis says.

“These days, everything is super-processed and full of sugar. Shredded ham – how do they even make that? And if you check the ingredients, the sodium and fat are off the chart. Why would you put that into your or your children’s bodies?”

Rocco’s Pizza is building a boutique sourdough facility on Grange Road, with the capacity to produce sourdough on a scale large enough to supply new restaurants that DeAngelis plans to open in the future.

Set to open in April, the facility will be like a brewery or distillery, where diners can see the sourdough being made behind glass viewing screens.

“We will have a degustation of the sourdoughs, with some pretty funky pizza toppings — all fresh and gourmet,” DeAngelis says.

“We’re building a sourdough room with machinery imported from Italy. It will be like a laboratory where you’ll see all the dough being made behind glass,” he says.

“It’s a massive plan. We’re saving the world from bad pizza, and we’ve got the T-shirts and everything.”

It’s a plan to take seriously, given DeAngelis’ previous work as a corporate director for the Ferrero Group chocolate company in Europe, where he would be sent around the world as a “fixer” to assist company branches that needed a nudge.

“I’ve previously had big jobs for multinationals, but the corporate thing was killing me. I was 37 years old, and I just didn’t want it anymore,” he says.

DeAngelis threw in his high-flying London job in 2002 and moved to Italy to spend a summer by the beach near Venice.

“I decided to chuck it in and no one used to do that as a director,” he says.

“We lived where the Italians would hang out at the beach, and it was just pizza and beer, but I’m not a big drinker so it was more about pizza. I did this for the whole summer.

“I had a eureka moment that I was never going to leave this pizza thing. I was just in love with it and wanted to learn everything I could about it.”

He spent the following two years travelling across Italy learning about pizza and training with sourdough masters in Sicily, Rome, Naples, Florence and Venice, which each had their own pizza style.

“I spent two years there learning everything I could, meeting all these amazing people who taught me some great knowledge. I’m imbued with this Italian philosophy on what food should be; it’s all about clean, almost ritualistic food,” DeAngelis says.

After then living in Sydney, London and Durban, the sourdough maestro returned to his hometown of Adelaide, which he and his wife saw as a better location to raise their family.

When he established Rocco’s Pizza on Findon Road, he learned that the building previously served as an Italian community card hall, but the local rumour is that it was a little more than that.

“It’s a well-known local thing that this used to be an under-the-table speakeasy gambling place for Italians. It was a card club, but apparently, they’d go hard and heavy on real money,” DeAngelis says.

In the fridge at Rocco’s Pizza, a container of sourdough mother continues to ferment around the clock. There are other batches of the mother kept off-site at different locations as a safeguard, were anything to happen to the one at the restaurant.

“I say to people if you were to break in here at night, find where we hide the mother because this is many, many years of hard work and love and care,” he says.

“We’re not finding a new and revolutionary technique. This is the original and only way that humans leavened bread and it’s something we’ve lost.”

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