Best Pizza in Vancouver

May 1, 2010

 

I was suffering from the effects of an Olympic injury most Vancouverites are still suffering from: a strained rotator cuff, the result of patting myself on the back too frequently. The houseguests had been sampling our city's eateries and each night the raves grew louder. But by Games' end everyone just wanted comfort food. "Where do you get a good pizza around here?" asked one. I opened my mouth, but no words came-where the hell do you get a really good pizza in Vancouver?

In a city celebrated for its culinary prowess, how is it that we lack so woefully in something as basic and fundamental as pizza? Adding to this odd contradiction is the fact that North America is in the middle of a pizza renaissance. The hottest table in Chicago isn't a new venture from Charlie Trotter or Rick Bayless-it's Great Lake, a nondescript hole-in-the-wall recently named the best joint in America by GQ's food arbiter, Alan Richman. Seattle has no fewer than five spots that turn out the sort of pies people line up for (Ballard's Delancey and Tom Douglas's Serious Pie are the standouts). Even Calgary-a city half our size-has a great spot in Pulcinella. I asked a number of Vancouver chefs where to get a good pie and mostly they just shrugged. I'm pretty sure Rob Feenie understood the question, but he still answered, "Prima Strada in Victoria."

There are a few themes that connect those out-of-town places. Some claim they're making true Napoli pizza, some do New York, and others insist on the Brooklyn variation. Some use coal-fired ovens, others wood-fired, and a few even churn out great pie with the much-maligned electric. They all spend virtually no money on décor, yet manage an effortlessly cool vibe. And the chefs, or pizzaioli if you must, rarely have the highfalutin' credentials that today's sophisticated diners have come to expect. Because the truth is, great pizza should be easy-it's just water, flour, and yeast mixed together, kneaded out, and put near a cranked-up heat source with some tomatoes and cheese on top. Even when pizza is mediocre, it's still pretty good.

So I set out on a pizza expedition to unearth our great pies. The ground rules were simple: ask everyone to recommend their favourite place and then go kick some tires. What was immediately clear was that there's no real consensus, itself a harbinger that all the contenders are less than superb. On the assumption that after a few days' absence any pizza would taste good, I packed the tasting into a grotesquely short period to separate the semolina wheat from the durum chaff. I avoided fancy toppings where possible, on the basis that creating a great short-rib pizza likely showed that you were good at cooking short rib. Finally, I swore to never use, in any circumstance, the affectation "'za." 

 

DUELLING OVENS

Vancouver’s own version of the Montagues and the Capulets was first up because when I asked people where the best pizza in town was, I was most often met with a long pause followed by, “I don’t know, probably Marcello’s,” or, “I don’t know, probably Lombardo’s.”

Of the pair, Marcello’s is the classier joint, with a deeper wine list and burgundy damask curtains to block out the devil-stick handlers on Commercial Drive. Its centrepiece is a massive wood-burning oven that resembles a statue of Ra in an Indiana Jones movie, with the pizzas moving in and out of its open mouth. The menu eschews modern toppings in favour of the Napoli biggies—margherita, funghi, and al pesto are three of the 23 varieties. (Another is the vegetariana, a word that appears in no reputable Italian dictionary.) I went for a pair of classics: the salsiccia with spicy Italian sausage, and the classic napoletana fresca with bocconcini and anchovies—the one that started it all in the old country. Marcello himself—yes, there’s an actual Marcello—boasts that his oven maintains an even 500º, which is generally considered a tad low for wood-fired pies, but it did quick work: our order was delivered in less than 10 minutes. My wife, not an acolyte of the Italian-style pie, looked at both, minimalist with their singular toppings, and said, “These two are going to taste exactly the same.”

“Nonsense,” I replied. “The napoletana will taste really fishy.” I was right, but it’s a tough quibble when you knowingly opt for anchovies. More questionable were the sliced discs of sausage atop the salsiccia. Slicing in lieu of crumbling sausage is a deadly pizza sin and a surefire sign that the meat is not from one of the city’s great Italian sausage houses. Still, the pizzas had authentic, papyrus-thin crusts: Napoli pizzas are invariable knife-and-fork jobs until you get to the crusts, which here were nicely charred if a little too lightly bubbled.

A few blocks down the strip, tucked away in an eyesore of a mall, is Lombardo’s. The two restaurants have so much in common you’d think the proprietors were happily married until a nasty divorce caused them to run rival old-school pizza joints. Ahem. Lombardo’s isn’t even trying to win the décor competition, and its wine list is much smaller (though it does have Masi’s Bardolino—a great pizza wine from Veneto—for $28).

Each establishment has its die-hard backers. (I believe Italians refer to this as a blood feud.) Lombardo’s wood-fired oven also turns out classic Napoli crusts almost identical to the ex’s, except that Lombardo’s adopts the New World approach of preparing pizzas with lots of toppings, so if you want sausage you also get green peppers and onions. The result is a pie that’s less pretty to look at but expresses more personality and more flavour notes.

These rivals have more in common with each other than with any other place in town—from the beautiful ovens that produce those delicate crusts to a misplaced belief that Italian tomatoes need no seasoning to the outdated ritual of giving me a shaker of Kraft “parmesan” should I wish to desecrate fresh mozzarella with cheese that has no expiry date. Both menus have a litany of other Italian options (Marcello’s favours alla vongole over Lombardo’s alle vongole) though my hunch is 90 percent of customers go for the pizza. I’ve seen enough after-school specials to know that, with some perseverance and a little magic, we might get these two places joined again.

Marcello’s 1404 Commercial Dr., 604-215-7760. Marcellopizzeria.com
Lombardo’s 1641 Commercial Dr., 604-251-2240. Lombardos.ca

 

"AND WE HAVE PIZZA"

Of all the pizza places in town, Campagnolo best channels the vibe of a new-school joint. It's in an edgy location on Main just south of Hastings, its décor is minimal, and its concept, the cuisine of Piedmont and Emiglia-Romagna, allows it to create pies that don't slavishly follow the rules of Napoli (where adding dandelion greens to a pizza is sacrilege). The result is a pie that seems thoroughly Italian, with a nicely bubbled and charred crust. Where the pies shine-there are only five varieties-is in the toppings. Fennel pollen sausage is crumbled (hooray) atop the salsiccia; another pie makes wonderful use of the house-cured guanciale (pig's jowl bacon). Campagnolo is the one place in town that could be Vancouver's "it" pizza spot if it decided to stick to pizzas (and lower its wine prices just a hair). But, since it's full of people happily paying more for pasta, that ain't happening anytime soon.

Nook, on the other hand, doesn't look at all like a pizza spot. The polished wood walls and bar seating scream French brasserie, but it does benefit from having amiable chef/owner Mike Jeffs stationed in front of the open kitchen, working the dough. Like Campagnolo, Nook is an Italian restaurant that also happens to serve pizza, in this case six varieties. While the pasta is well done and reasonably priced, the pizzas are the real draw. They're thin-crust, not Napoli-thin but close enough, and the toppings are rustic-think whole garlic cloves over roasted tomatoes and caramelized onions. Jeffs uses ricotta on his fresca pie and the result is more flavour and less of the water that bocconcini (the traditional topping) tends to shed. Nook uses a wood stone oven that also heats with gas (because they can't get a wood-burning permit)-thankfully it still manages to produce the char and chewiness that wood imparts.

Campagnolo 1020 Main St., 604-484-6018. Campagnolorestaurant.ca
Nook 781 Denman St., 604-568-4554. Nookrestaurant.ca


 

NEW KIDS IN TOWN

Red Card is the ambitious new venture joining Cibo and Uva in the hopping Moda Hotel on Seymour Street. This spot wants to be not only the best pizza joint but also the destination for all things soccer-an unlikely union. They seem serious about both, though, and have installed flatscreens on every surface imaginable. More importantly they've invested in a Marana Forni oven from Italy, the culinary equivalent of parking a new Ferrari Scaglietti in your driveway. To run this 18-pizzas-at-a-time behemoth they brought in chef Ermir Zhyvelaj, a 13-year veteran of the Italian pizza scene, which is kinda like hiring Michael Schumacher to drive that Ferrari for you. The result is predictably good pies-huge bubbles and chewy crust, 90 percent carbs, 10 percent Hubba Bubba. They have 11 options to choose from; the prosciutto fungi is draped in slices of crispy Parma, and the quattro formaggi has oozing pockets of veiny Gorgonzola. The only misfire was a caprese with so much arugula that it looked like an open-faced salad sandwich. What does all this have to do with soccer? Nothing, which is the place's conundrum. If I'm going to watch an Arsenal match, or even a Canucks game, I'm happy to have some good pizza to snack on, but if I want to go for the pizza, do I really want some Europhile explaining to me how relegation works in the premier league while I'm trying to eat?

Charlie's in Yaletown continues down the Red Card path. It seeks, a bit weirdly, to blend great pies with great cocktails, all in an envelope of pounding house music. As great as Negroni cocktails are, I've never sipped one and thought, Boy, I wish I had a hot wedge of pizza in hand to bring out the bitter Campari taste in my drink.

The concept is inspired by Hugo's in Sydney, where it goes over like gangbusters. Sydney is also where vegemite and Neighbours goes over like gangbusters (and therefore I predict long lines at Charlie's when Whistler shuts down for the season). Charlie's makes no pretence of authenticity, instead opting for the fireworks of unique toppings on each of its 10 pies. First up is a pizza with (the aforementioned) short ribs, caramelized onions, and horseradish cream, followed by the poutine pizza with Flintstones-sized cheese curds, bordelaise sauce, and sliced fingerling potatoes (which is actually an inspired pizza topping). They're quite good, though pricey, and the crusts have a rich golden hue that gives them an almost brioche-like smoothness, a welcome break from thinissima. The flavour combinations on these pies are well considered, but notwithstanding they're round and made of dough, they're only tangentially related to the pizzas at the other spots. It's comfort food masquerading as pizza, just as the restaurant, with its over-the-top interior of Lucite, reds, and deep blacks, is a bar masquerading as a pizza joint.

Red Card 900 Seymour St., 604-689-4460. Modahotel.ca
Charlie's 1265 Hamilton St., 604-568-6885. Charlielovespizza.com

 

ETHICAL PIE?

Of all the pizza places I tried, two shrines to organic left me feeling the best, physically and ethically—which may not be a true pizza sentiment, but is a local one. Whole Foods always sucks me in with the thrill of the hunt; one of my favourite pastimes is to navigate its immaculate aisles in search of those rare affordable gems that have slipped through the pricing ethos. The simple cheese pizza, at $9.95, is a steal (I’ve bought an heirloom tomato here that cost almost as much): the crust is substantial, the cheese top drawer. Other offerings are priced at $14.95. I’ll go for the artichoke if I’m feeling flush, but it’s the cheese that brings me in.

Rocky Mountain Flatbread Company wears its organic, all-natural mantra on its batik sleeve. I’m normally wary of places that are all natural. I want my chefs to be all flavour, and if that means all natural, great. But I don’t want someone turning down Piedmontese white truffles because of the impact of overseas shipping. Plus, I’m wary of places that still use the ridiculous moniker of flatbread.

The centrepiece here is an artisan clay oven that always has stray, unsupervised children orbiting it like planets around the sun. In accordance with the mini-chain’s family-friendly approach, it’s the only place that encourages creating your own pies from a list of ingredients (they offer 10 of their own if you’re feeling uncreative), and actually lets kids in the kitchen. If the result isn’t great, the fault probably lies with you.

Whole Foods See Wholefoodsmarket.com, Rocky Mountain See Rockymountainflatbread.ca

What did I learn from my pizza odyssey? Even if you eat it for lunch and dinner, day after day, it’s still hard to get tired of well-made pizza. We may not yet have a great pizza spot, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have good pizza. Maybe someday we’ll reach the culinary heights of Calgary. VM

 

TAKE ME OUT

While most pizza restaurants will send you away with a quasi-recyclable cardboard box, the hard truth is that thin crust starts to fade the second it comes out of the oven, making it a poor choice for takeout. To handle the travel time, you need a bit of Canadian heft on the crust, the sort that’s provided by:

Moki’s  Moki’s has ruled the West Side from its shabby throne since 1966, and while it ain’t the most trendy (it still has a pizza called the Y2K), it’s never greasy, holds up the next day, and tastes like fresh ingredients, which is pretty much the holy trinity of takeout. 5530 Dunbar St., 604-263-4440. Mokispizza.com

Nat’s New York Pizzeria  The Bastone cousins have been making pies since 1992 and while their Big Apple shtick comes dangerously close to East Side Mario’s territory, all is forgiven with pies that are thick enough to travel but thin enough to be authentic. Be warned: the boys love their garlic, so everyone in the house must partake. 2684 W. Broadway, 604-737-0707. 1080 Denman St., 604-642-0700. Natspizza.com

Hell  This new Lonsdale shop is the first North American outpost of a hugely popular New Zealand chain. Unlike in actual Hell, the choices here are endless—pick the sauce (including barbecue) and the toppings and then take home the pies in a box that can be folded into a coffin. 1931 Lonsdale Ave., North Van, 888-435-5911. Hellpizza.ca 

Panago  The winner in mass-chain war, and Abbotsford’s great success story. Go for a small chorizo and goat cheese on whole-wheat thin crust for $10.75 (and say yes to the free Cheezy Cheddar dipping sauce). Frickin’ everywhere. Panago.com 

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