Two days in Toronto doesn’t sound like much, but I managed to find enough time to check out pizza from 35 different shops. The bulk of my slice intake was via the judges’ table at the Restaurants Canada food show. Unlike the competitions I’ve judged in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and Naples the competitors in Toronto all hailed from the immediate area. That meant I got a major dose of the local pizza scene without leaving the convention center. What I found was a city in the middle of a major pizza awakening.
Most sources point to the late 1950s as pizza’s arrival in Toronto. I’ve seen articles that refer to a pizzeria called Vesuvio in 1957 and a 1956 article referencing a restaurant called Gaggia House, which served “espresso coffee and delicious pizza pie among many Italian delicacies.” This being the case, Toronto’s first wave of pizza popularity was likely a thin crust style similar to that found in New York City at the time. The next big trend followed a wave of Neapolitan pizza with places like Pizzeria Libretto in 2008 and Queen Margherita in 2010.
Since then, the pizza scene in Toronto has exploded beyond the confines of Neapolitan pizza. Based on what I saw at the competition, there’s a real focus on expressing the city’s multicultural makeup through its pizza. One memorable pie transposed the flavors of Khao Soi, the rich northern Thai noodle soup, onto a gluten free base. Another highlighted the flavors of Vietnamese Pho using the neo-Neapolitan format.
One of my favorites of the competition came from a pizzeria called Levant. The pizzaiolo used Sicilian pizza as the platform for a trio of Palestinian dishes. One third of the pizza was shawarma with parsley pesto, the next section had kofta meatballs, fried onions, and cream, then the final section was Mediterranean meat lovers drizzled with garlic confit and oregano sauce. The grand prize went to a pizza that expressed a Persian eggplant dish called Kashke Bademjan on a Detroit style crust, complete with an exaggerated frico edge. Most of the competition entries were just like this in that they paid tribute to the pizzaiolo’s own cultural heritage.
When I left the show each day, I made my way to some local pizzerias that weren’t involved with the competition. I saw more signs of a pizza scene pushing the boundaries. The clearest example came from a couple local serial entrepreneurs who got into the pizza business a few years ago with Big Trouble Pizza in Toronto’s Chinatown. They welcomed controversy with their Butter Jam Jam pizza, a tribute to the owners’ favorite childhood snack of buttered toast with jam. The pizza has mozzarella, organic raspberry jam, butter cream, a drizzle of balsamic reduction, and lemon zest. It might not read as pizza, but it tastes ridiculously fresh. That’s what I love about Toronto’s pizza scene; it isn’t tied to any one tradition so it allows itself to be teased into any format that works for the consumer.
Toronto is one of the most diverse cities on the planet, with an estimated 250 ethnicities speaking 170 languages across the greater metro area, so it’s no surprise that the cuisine reflects the city’s complexity. What’s most interesting is that some of the best pizza I tasted was presented by newcomers to the pizza business. They’ve learned by watching others on YouTube and Instagram and by reading the barrage of pizza books that have landed in stores over the past few years. It’s just more proof that this is a food that thrives on its ability to be constantly reinvented.