PIZZA QUEST: MARGHERITA-VILLE

“All pizzas are equal, but some are more equal than others” – GEORGE ORWELL, PROBABLY

PART I: MARGHERITA-VILLE

Pizza what?

Pizza Quest is a search for the best margherita pizzas in the city. The rules are simple, really: If a pizzeria makes a margherita—or a margherita-like pizza—then that pizza is in play. The name matters not (some places use a different designation) and neither does the method—“authentic”, thick- or thin-crust, whole pizza or by the slice, wood or gas oven, whatever. Of concern to Pizza Quest are only those primary components that comprise the margherita-style pie, i.e. crust, tomato, cheese and basil.

Pizza question: Why the margherita?

The margherita is perfect for Pizza Quest for several reasons. On a practical level, it’s a standard variety prepared by most pizza joints, which makes it a convenient criterion. More broadly, however, this style represents pizza in its simplest form, at its most elemental: crust, sauce and cheese—or, the Trinity of pizza-making (the clouds break, a heavenly choir sings).

The few factors involved make the margherita about as honest as a pizza gets, that is, any problems—e.g. ingredients of poor quality, improper seasoning, incorrect cooking—prove glaringly obvious. It follows, then, that preparing one well demands true pizza-making passion and prowess. In the words of Leonardo di Vinci, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”.

Now, to state the obvious and stay some objections: no, a great margherita does not necessarily a great pizzeria make (though it definitely ups the odds, that’s for damn sure); and no, Pizza Quest did not cover every pizzeria in town (too many pizzas, too little time). As well, Pizza Quest says nothing about the other styles of pizza on offer—or the decor, the popularity of a place, the service, the available beverages, and so on. In this way, the evaluation a pizza do not represent a review of the restaurant.

Lessons learned.

Before moving on to the results, some Pizza Quest observations.

Talk is cheap.  Claims of an “authentic oven”, or “traditional method”, or “Neapolitan-style” don’t mean much. They bear little relation to the quality of the product and, in many cases, amount to no more than marketing.

Popularity ≠ top-notch pizza. Surprisingly, perhaps, some of the busier and best-loved pizzerias in the city placed poorly in Pizza Quest. Truth is, although people love great pizza, they love mediocre and even bad pizza, as well.

Cooking method matters not. The top three pizzas in this list represent three different styles of oven: wood, gas and electric. While the wood-fired forno is king in popular pizza culture, in reality, results vary enormously (and the contribution to the final flavour is questionable, in any case). As journalist and food writer Alan Richman wrote in his pizza epic, American Pie: “The truth is that great pizzas aren’t made by great ovens; they’re made by great cooks.”

Rankings: The breakdown

Pizza Quest did not crown a winner, but rather classified the pizzas into four categories of “pizza performance” based obvious benchmarks (e.g. balance of components, seasoning, baking) Conveniently—and fortuitously—the dozen pizzerias divide evenly into three per division.

The categories are best explained in reverse order, from “worst” to “best”, as follows.

Il Purgatorio”: Pizzas that demonstrate little care or major problems, e.g. poor- or low-quality ingredients, inept seasoning, improper cooking, etc. These are pizzas that prove unpleasant to eat, or that you regret ordering (it can happen, people). Comfort food, without the comfort.

Next comes “Fair to Middling”. To quote the Cambridge English Dictionary definition of the phrase: “not very good but not bad”. Pizzas that do not stand out as particularly interesting or memorable, or that are marred by minor to moderate problems in preparation or consistency. Were someone to ask you how the pizza was, for example, you might respond, after a moment’s reflection, “Yeah, it was OK. It was pizza”.

The group “Goodness me!” includes good or very good pizzas that show consistent standards, quality ingredients and capable preparation. These are pizzas that have you nodding your head, thinking, “That’s a solid margherita”. When you return to the restaurant, you try other pizzas.

The top classification is “Il Paradiso della Pizza”. The lofty pinnacle of pizza-making, scaled only by those pizzas that leave you eating in astonished silence, and speaking, when you must, in hushed, reverential tones. (“This pizza … is unbelievable.”) Pizzas so sensational that, when you return to the restaurant with the intention to try something else, an internal struggle ensues. (“Maybe we should get a margherita for the table?”) A product of high-quality ingredients in the hands of a masterful pizzaiolo.

The rest of this article details the results of Pizza Quest, starting with the top category (“pizza paradise”)  and working downwards. First, however, two provisoes: within the four groups, pizzas are listed in no particular order (i.e. there is no first, second or third place in the respective categories); also, the length of an entry does not equate to rating—that is, a longer write-up does not imply a better pizza.

Here we go.

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Part II: “Il Paradiso della Pizza”

GEMA Pizzeria, Moleskine Restaurant, Pizzeria No. 900

GEMA – “That’s Amore!”

Pizza Quest took me to GEMA on a hot August evening. Truth be told, I wasn’t even hungry; my intention was to get a take-out pizza, give it a taste, and go home with the rest. Ten minutes later, I was sitting on one of the benches outside the restaurant, staring at an empty cardboard box, stunned by pizza bliss. To employ a food pun that is as bad as that pizza was good, it was love at first bite. (Sorry.)

The GEMA margherita bears not a name, but a number: 1889. This is a date significant to the owners, I’d imagine—maybe when their forebears came over from the Old Country? No idea, but I state that because family matters here, evidently: Many menu items are named after relatives; for example, the title of one pizza reads “Jenn (Épouse du chef / Chef’s wife)”. In fact, according to the website, “GEMA” is a actually an acronym of the names of the proprietors’ children.

In a pinch, it might also serve as an acronym of words I would use to describe the 1889, take your pick: glorious, great, grand, gratifying, exceptional, excellent, extraordinary, eminent, magnificent, masterful, marvelous, moreish, accomplished, appealing, astounding, above-par. Or maybe, to take additional license, “Go eat (this) margherita at once”.

GEMA prepares the 1889 in an electric oven at high heat (my guess would be in the 400°C range), cooking it quickly enough so as to keep the freshness and flavour of the ingredients and create a blistered, bubbly base. This cooking process also adds a slight crisp to the bottom (reminiscent of a good New York slice), which functions as an additional textural element. Otherwise, the crust shares that springy softness of the best Pizza Quest margheritas, full of bready goodness. GEMA’s crust was, furthermore, my favourite because of the slightly higher salt content—it’s one of the few crusts that could legitimately stand on its own (i.e. without toppings) and be satisfyingly delicious.

On top of that base GEMA applies a bright, well-balanced tomato sauce, appealing to the eye and to the palate. The cheese, a buffalo mozzarella from Quebec, is likewise delicious and properly portioned, and the fresh basil, added post-cooking, brings brightness and balance.

The 1889 does not mimic the Neapolitan margherita, but rather translates it to this context (Little Italy, Montreal, Quebec) with a lot of love and a little bit of pride. It is a perfect pizza that sings of passion, quality and care.

Moleskine – “The Pizzaphile’s Pizza”

On a second visit to Moleskine, my dining companion—whom I had dragged to many different pizzerias, by this point—looked at me and said, quietly, “I don’t know where this one scores in Pizza Quest, but it’s definitely my favourite”. Not hard to see why someone would state that: Moleskine makes a superlative margherita, one that could serve as a study in skillful pizza-making.

The Moleskine margherita also takes top spot for the best wood-fired pizza in this list, by some margin. The cooking here—as with every other element of the pizza—was perfect, providing an evenly baked crust with the right amount of char. Moleskine tops this crust with a wonderful sauce, flush with tomato flavour. With respect to the remaining toppings, here they do something different. The basil they add before and after cooking, which pulls different, but complementary, tastes from the herb. They likewise add cheese pre- and post-oven—although, in this case, they vary the ingredient: fior di latte before the pizza gets fired and stracciatella di bufala after. The end effect: a captivating contrast in taste, texture and temperature—and, ultimately, a unsurpassed pizza. This is not only one of the best margheritas in Montreal, but one of the best pizzas, period.

Pizzeria No. 900 – “La Margherita Antica”

The pizza that inspired Pizza Quest—or planted the idea, at least. You may have missed it, however, as No. 900 only offered the “Margherita Antica” (their name) for a matter of months this past summer. For my part, I got lucky, walking into the Laurier location for lunch with a dear friend who had come to visit.

The “Margherita Antica” differs from No. 900’s conventional margherita in two ways. The primary change is the sauce, which they level up by way of a unique tomato, the “Re Umberto” or King Umberto, an heirloom fruit from the Amalfi Coast that dates back to the 19th century. From their website:

NO.900 has partnered with the agricultural cooperative Re Fiascone [. . .] to purchase tomatoes for a limited time. The production of the heritage tomato is small-scale, which means the Margherita Antica will only be available in restaurants for a short period.

“King” indeed: The Umberto makes a spectacular pizza sauce, potent with tart and sweet tomato notes, as well as a sound case for the importance of that element’s role on a pizza, in general. (Food writer Jeffrey Steingarten got it wrong when he argued in It Must’ve Been Something I Ate that: “The most important thing about pizza is the crust. Toppings are secondary”.)

To top this special sauce, No. 900 switches up the cheese process, forgoing their familiar pre-cooking addition of fior di latte and adding it, instead, post-forno. Like the Moleskine margherita, this creates a contrasting sensation of temperature and texture. The base of the “Margherita Antica”: No. 900’s consistent crust, with the right degree of doneness, elasticity and life.

Shame it’s not on offer more often, for this is a stellar pizza.

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Part III: “Goodness me!”

Pizzeria Kesté, Club Social PS, Pizzeria No. 900

Pizzeria Kesté – “La Pizza Elettrica”

Kesté (no relation to the well-known pizzeria of the same name in New York City) provides another example of how you can produce a satisfying, traditional-style pizza in an electric oven. Theirs is a delicious and consistent margherita: I tried it twice, several months apart, and the pizzas were precisely the same. Here the sauce stands out, in particular, very well-seasoned and rich with vivid tomato flavour. The crust of the Kesté margherita feels firmer than the other good or great ones on this list, a little more dense—a result, perhaps, of the lower oven temperature (375°C)—but tastes great, all the same, with a wonderful toasted wheat flavour. All in all, this pizza speaks of skilled pizza-making and is a welcome approximation of the authentic margherita—about as close as you can come with an electric oven.

Club Social PS – “Done as Romans do”

The “pizza napoletana” retains its supreme status in popular pizza culture, to many minds, the apogee of pizza-making. There are, however, plenty of other pizza styles in Italy, and countless more in North America, and many of these, done right, can compete with—if not best—an AVPN-approved pizza any day.

Case in point, the Roman style known as al taglio (“by the cut”), al trancio (“by the slice”) or al teglia (“in the pan”). This pizza has a thicker base and is prepared in rectangular pans. Post-cooking, the pizzas sit on display behind a counter and, in Rome, are sold by weight and cut with scissors. The best al taglio I tasted there boasted a bubbly, soft crust, a little focaccia-like, with delicious toppings of all sorts.

Elena’s casual downstairs counterpart, Club Social P.S., serves a variety of Roman-style pizzas by the square, among them a margherita. To my tastes, it’s on the money: a satisfying, slightly dense crust with a great chew; a tasty tomato sauce; good cheese; great bursts of basil. Granted, you’re eating this pizza in St. Henri, not on some clamorous Roman street corner, but still: It’s a slice that rivals, if not equals, the best of the Eternal City.

Pizzeria No. 900 – “Old Faithful”

I’ve written about the Laurier location of Pizzeria No. 900 at length (see here), and above (“La Margherita Antica”), so I’ll keep this brief. To test their standard margherita, I went to the original restaurant in Outremont, on Bernard. Different place, same pizza: A consistently high-standard and satisfying margherita that embodies the quality and care you expect from a by-the-book “napoletana”: good tomatoes, good cheese, a great crust based on a lean dough made from “00” flour.

While this pizza did not place in the very top of this list, don’t be mistaken: It’s a solid margherita. Not to mention, the fact that staff members from No. 900 have competed and placed in international pizza-making competitions speaks to their savoir faire. I’ll commend them also for spreading their gospel of good-quality pizza throughout the city and, increasingly, the province: There are nineteen pizzerias No. 900 currently—as well as a food truck with a forno.

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PART IV: “Fair to Middling”

Elena, Bottega Pizzeria, Adamo Pizza

Elena – “The Chimney Sweep”

From my review in May: “The pizza, as it turns out, is another story. My first experience marked a theme that continued, to one level or another, across all five of the pizzas that I tried: They were burnt in places to various degrees or, even when they appeared properly cooked, a bitter, blackened taste lingered.”

While I loved everything else about Elena, poured out the praise, and predicted that it would place on best new restaurant lists local and national, the pizza I did not like. And while I did try a margherita back then, Pizza Quest compelled me to return—perhaps the problem lay with my palate, or poor luck.

Apparently not. After another visit—and more exceptional service, stunning wine, superlative pasta and delicious desserts—the same conclusion: I don’t like the pizza. Insert shrug emoji here.

As toppings go, the Elena margherita hit the right notes, if a little cautiously: a flavoursome, though somewhat subtle sauce; great cheese in an ideal quantity; nice notes of fresh basil. Below these lay a passable crust, though a bit bland to this writer’s taste. All in all, about the same as the margherita I’d tried in the spring (“stunning to the eye, if somewhat mute to the palate”).

The problem, and the reason for this pizza’s place in Pizza Quest: once again, a prominent, unpleasant burnt flavour. Although Elena had not overcooked the pizza (the cooking appeared perfect), the bottom was coated in a fine dust of ash—blackened flour, I assume. When taking a bite, this powder coated the tongue and the bitter taste of carbon monopolized the palate. To further the point, wiping my face and hands with the napkin left it smudged with soot. Perplexing. Shrug emoji.

Bottega – “Pizzamnesia”

Bottega: Another example of how a “traditional” method and oven can produce an unspectacular product. The crust came out well enough, lively and slightly elastic, decent in flavour. From there up, though, things grew nondescript, even monotonous: there was sauce, there was cheese, there was basil; all achieved balance by staying in the background, by remaining more or less mute. A pizza that dreams are made of—those dreams that come early in the night and are faded and forgotten by daybreak.

Adamo – “The New York Slice?”

The “New York” slice, like all things NYC (the New York cabbie, the New York deli, the New York bagel), occupies a certain mythical status in popular culture, which probably has to do with that city’s unique place in the common imagination. The idea of a New York slice excites us; for a moment we might, in eating it, play the New Yorker, that apex of urban cool, shoving a folded slice into our face as we swing our way along a crowded city sidewalk.

Adamo Pizza in Saint Henri has built a passionate fanbase doing its version of the New York slice, slinging very large pieces of very large pies. What I love about Adamo is its independent character and sense of pride—very New York, when you think about it. Although the place is not old, it feels mature, somehow, as if it’s been there for ages. I admire also the fact that they offer only two options: you can get the pizza by the slice or by the whole pie—which is, by the way, the size of Staten Island and costs $27. Also, if you want that pizza half and half, they tack on a $3 dollar premium for no other reason than, “hey f*ck you, pay me”—if a gratuitous money grab is not “New York”, I don’t know what is. All that to say, Adamo has a personality, and a little bit of attitude, and it’s hard not to appreciate.

What I don’t like about Adamo: the pizza. None of the five or six slices I tried over two visits impressed me much, and while what follows concerns the tomato, cheese and basil pizza (their iteration of the margherita), it applies pretty much across the board.

The first time around, the kitchen re-fired the slices for far too long, so that they ended up dead on arrival: a desiccated, biscuit-like crust with cheese and tomato sauce. Not good. The next visit, Adamo fared better, offering a more accurate sense of their pizza’s potential. The impressively thin base had a really nice texture and had been perfectly cooked. Taste-wise, though, the crust didn’t bring much to the table and, by the time you reached the outer part of the pizza, there was little incentive to eat the edge. With respect to the tomato sauce, cheese and basil, I did get the sense that Adamo makes use of good quality ingredients—but all in all, the toppings, like the crust, lacked in flavour, under-seasoned. To their credit, the pizzeria has plenty of options for patrons to season their pizza as they wish, post-cooking (e.g. shakers of parmesan and red pepper flakes, salt and pepper), but you can’t properly season a pizza after the fact.

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Part V: “Il Purgatorio”

Stella Pizzeria, Pizzeria Magpie, Pizzeria Geppetto

Stella Pizzeria – “The Amateur Hour”

I’ve got a lot of love for the neighbourhood joint, i.e. those independent restaurants that set up shop and make a go of it, without any aspirations of empire. The kind of place you come across not by staring at a screen, but by exploring a new part of town—you know, walking about, with your head up. Typically, you can find a table, dependable food, friendly service. Character.

Stella Pizzeria on Laurier Avenue East is one such spot, boasting a welcoming space with a warm, savvy decor. (I’ll add that the business replaced a Starbucks, to their credit and the neighbourhood’s benefit). Of course, Pizza Quest is concerned only with the margherita, which, unfortunately, was not good. The crust was inert in texture and flat in flavour, as devoid of character as it was colour (my guess: a very low temperature oven, as pizzerias go). The sauce tasted similarly one-note—and a weak one at that. The basil: bad; the cheese … present, as in the fior di latte came to class, but did not contribute. In the company of the other pizzas on this list, the Stella margherita appeared and tasted particularly pallid and unimpressive. You can, and probably have, made a much better pizza at home.

Pizzeria Magpie – “The Meh-pie”

The Magpie margherita didn’t do well in Pizza Quest. The crust came out alright, properly cooked, puffy and blistered here and there—the best part of this pizza, really. For cheese, Magpie opts for bocconcini which, technically, are minute  balls of mozzarella, but in this case, were of a very poor quality—probably the mass-produced variety that you can purchase in any supermarket (although you shouldn’t). Very bland, very boring, very blah. In fact, in this instance, the cheese did not even melt fully.

Between that bland bocconcini and the crust lay a cooked tomato sauce that tasted heavily of dried herbs and garlic. In fact, as I progressed through the pizza, the latter flavour compounded to the point that it overpowered everything else, and lingered long after I’d finished. Which, in full disclosure, I did not want to do.

Pizzeria Geppetto – “A Real Pizza?”

Pizzeria Geppetto proves two things: one, you need not serve a stellar product to succeed in the pizza game (the one I went to on Masson was packed; plus, there are other locations); and two, again, a forno autentico does not necessarily a good pizza make. The Geppetto margherita put on a poor show. To begin at the bottom: a moribund base, baked too long, more cracker than crust. Atop that, a sauce without personality. Atop that, a bland cheese—and by far too much of it. A flurry of basil to finish, hacked hurriedly to pieces. Looking at this pizza, I did not want to taste it; having tasted it, I did not want to finish. Very little quality, very little care.

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