Most pizza in this town is a bland Frisbee covered with a smear of red, some lap-staining sludge and a rubbery roofing of something masquerading as cheese.
My boys love it. Pizza seems to be more than just a food option. It is quintessential real-guy fare — the fuel after the game, the fill-up on the way to the game, the treat while watching the game.
I don’t share their pizza passion, but I do make it. Often, actually, and mostly to buy their affection (food inspires it, and from teenage boys it is in short supply). And I tend to believe that my pizza– gas-fired at 525 F– is pretty much up there with the best ever.
When I do sample pizzas that emerge from wood-burning ovens set to glassblowing temperatures, I recognize the added smack of a charred crust. But campfire flavour notwithstanding, the bottoms never seem as good as mine.
Until now. This new Tennessy Willems (named after the owners’ children I am told) churns out pizza pies that may not be heaven on toast to the 10-year-old boy, but they will be for his parents. This is slender-crusted with a smoky, sourdough tang, puffy-edged, burbled and sooted from a supremely hot brick oven. They char their tomatoes to make a seriously good onion-sweetened sauce, they don’t skimp on the fresh herbs, and the toppings — deeply caramelized onion, pear, apple, wild boar sausage, duck confit, local goat cheese, imported mozzarella — are sensible delights.
There are 10 on offer. My favourite so far is the wild boar sausage, with apples, sage pesto and old Cheddar, though the duck confit with Riopelle is right up there too. Even the simple Margherita — covered in that sacred trio of tomato, cheese (left in big oozy globs) and basil (whole leaves and lots of them) is delicious.
Pizzas are served in a simple-smart room. There’s a short bar that affords a view of the kitchen and brick oven, and a dozen closely spaced tables, fashioned with glossy boards discovered during the renovation. The white walls are hung with local talent, and the big front window floods the place with light — though it also struggles to keep out the January chill.
There are a few other things this new Hintonburg restaurant does well, and some things fall short. In the first column goes the Caesar salad — a terrific rendition — and the smoked mackerel starter, buoyed up with a beet slaw sweetened with apple. The charcuterie plate can be a success — it rather depends on the day’s terrine. One evening, an excess of cloves mars it. A second round is more successful, the coarse duck meat laced with a bright hit of orange. The cornichons are tired, however, and the bread (which is fresh, but bland) would be improved with a little toasting.
B.C. spot prawns come with a nice buttery sauce piqued with capers, but the shrimp — both times I’ve tried them — have been unpleasantly mushy. A beet salad looks pretty, but the beets are pretty tasteless.
In addition to the 10 pizzas, there are three main dishes. The star is the flat iron steak with its side of roasted fingerling potato wedges flecked with coarse salt and fresh thyme. The two pasta dishes fall short, however. The spaghetti tastes cooked a while ago — it fails to bind with the sauce, and the meatballs are dry and bland. There is lasagna, which you should be warned is vegetarian (the menu doesn’t) and we found the bitterness of the arugula too much in the bechamel, which is, in turn, too thickly doled out.
I’d stick with the pizzas, and save room for dessert, particularly for the superb lemon tart with vanilla poached pears.
Service is often the weak link in a new place. It’s very friendly and familiar, but a bit scattered and not particularly acquainted with the food or wine. (Too much “I don’t know, I’ll have to ask” sorts of answers to our questions.)
Good microbrews are on tap, and the wine list, though short, is smartly chosen to match the food, with bottles more interesting than the usual stuff.