How Michele Benigna made pizza posh

By Francesca Emms
Photography by Anna Briggs

Featured in Capital #78.
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Michele brings everything together.

As a child Michele Benigna loved dipping his wee hands into huge sacks of hazelnuts. His grandfather, Antonio, was a great “gelataio,” an ice cream maker. “For years he worked in his little shop called La Gatta, on Lake Iseo in Italy, making the best gelato you could possibly imagine. My earliest memory is me in his gelato lab dipping my hands into huge bags of roasted hazelnuts that he used in making gelato. And of course eating freshly made gelato straight out of the machine, just amazing.”

These days Michele is a Visual Effects Artist for Weta Digital. A digital compositor, Michele brings together all the elements from the other departments to make the final image and create “movie magic”. But the foodie gene runs deep – Michele also runs Flour and Gold, a small artisan pizza business. “Pizza is often associated with junk food but it doesn’t have to be. If you have properly fermented dough, light and airy, with top quality ingredients, there’s nothing to feel guilty about!”

Michele lives in Seatoun Heights with his wife (and Flour and Gold delivery driver) Beatrice, who he describes as “my love and partner in crime” and their seven-year-old daughter Luna. His favourite place in Wellington is Mt Victoria: “I love walking in the woods there and the proximity to the central area of the city makes it surreal and unique.” But ask Michele where his home is and he thinks of Italy. “I’m still deeply rooted there. My passion for baking pizzas is a way of communicating my Italian heritage. I love to be able to express it using local ingredients, mixing my Italian side and my new home which is New Zealand.”

Michele says Heston Blumenthal is one of his inspirations. “Heston pushes me to be a better cook. He is self-taught and questions everything. One of his most famous dishes, Sound of the Sea, is sashimi on a bed of tapioca served on top of a glass-covered box of sand. Each serving comes with a sea shell in which a hidden iPod plays the sound of crashing waves.”

As part of aculinary/photographic project Michele reimagined five famous dishes as pizza, and one of them was Blumenthal’s Sound of the Sea. He began with a seaweed dough base topped with kingfish sashimi, turmeric-marinated scallops, sea urchin, green mussels, edible sand, and coastal herbs foraged in Lyall Bay. He even chose a piece of music that should be played while the pizza is devoured.

You can’t order that pizza, but you might get something just as special during Wellington on a Plate when Michele teams with Ombra for Pizza: a Fine Dining Experience. On 7 and 14 August they’re taking over LTD and offering a six-course tasting menu that promises to “push the limits of pizza.” I want to elevate the perception of pizza, Michele says. “I’m going to guide guests through a rollercoaster of flavours, sourcing the best ingredients that New Zealand and Italy have to offer, with my roots in the tradition but with a twist of innovation.”


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