It started with a power outage at Leonardo's Pizza Palace in Melbourne on Sunday evening, during the peak of dinner service. Venue manager Laura Street was setting down tealight candles in a fully-booked dining room that had been plunged into darkness.
Fifteen minutes later, co-owner Guy Bentley received a three-word phone call from head chef Matthew Butterworth: "We're on fire." Bentley made the long, anxious drive from his Eltham home to the Carlton restaurant; when he pulled up, there were three fire trucks, two police cars and an ambulance already on-site. "The ambulance was terrifying. I was just hoping no-one was hurt," says Bentley.
The fire is believed to have been caused by an electrical fault in the roof cavity of the pizza kitchen. Staff only became aware of the blaze when an ember fell on the pizza chef's head, and promptly evacuated the restaurant while tackling the flames with a fire extinguisher. "The main fireman said the staff did a great job [with the extinguisher]. If they hadn't, it could have been a lot worse," says Bentley.
But the controlled chaos didn't stop diners' hunger pangs. "Some people were asking if they could still get takeaway pizzas," he says.
While the restaurant is closed Bentley's priority is the wellbeing of his staff, a 21-strong workforce comprised mainly of casuals. Many were on reduced hours after the city's fourth and most recent lockdown; the restaurant had only reopened two days before the fire.
Some have found work at other venues in the north Melbourne neighbourhood – Goldy's, Black Pearl – while others have picked up shifts at Bentley's other venues, Stan's Deli and Leonards House of Love. But there's something to be said about the mental health of a workforce that's juggled the precarity of multiple city-wide lockdowns and COVID-19 restrictions.
To that end, the restaurant has launched a GoFundMe campaign to support staff while Leonardo's is out of action. There's also a small range of merchandise for pre-order, designed the day after the fire by Weekday Design Studio; t-shirts and tote bags are emblazoned with tongue-in-cheek taglines: "Hottest Pies in Town", "Never Not Flaming Hot", "Cooked with Flames". All proceeds of the fundraiser and merchandise sales will go directly to staff members. "They've already had the anxiety of the last lockdown. This is for their peace of mind and security," says Bentley. "We don't know how long [our closure] will go on for."
For Bentley and his business partner, Jon Harper, the waiting game is real. The restaurant is closed indefinitely while insurance claims and forms are processed, and damage assessors are tied up with the recent storms that have swept through eastern parts of the city.
Bentley's most worried about the hybrid pizza oven, the prized wood-gas-electrical appliance that forms the beating heart of the restaurant. "The fire brigade were watering the oven like they were watering a garden," he says of firefighters' attempts to cool the temperature of the damaged kitchen. He says the oven, which was imported from Italy, is worth about $50,000.
"We're Leonardo's Pizza Palace," he says. "So without the pizza it's not much of a palace."