It is a grand improvement over what preceded it. Oregano\’s, for something like 25 years, was a pasta factory of the dreariest sort. A change of eatery at this plum ByWard Market address was desperately welcome news.
The brick building, which dates to 1882 when The Grand was the name of a hotel, is now a smart new restaurant owned by the same group that brought us Empire Grill and MÃ©tropolitain. The former is a steakhouse, the latter fancies itself a Parisian-style brasserie, and this new baby claims to serve authentic Neapolitan-style pizza, which means it must conform with the exacting and protective standards of Italy\’s Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana.
A server tells us The Grand hopes one day to receive full papal-like blessing from the associazione, and to do so it must use imported ingredients, traditional methods and the properly wood-fired oven set to the proper Hadean temperature. (I don\’t know if the associazione dictates how long it must take for a diner to receive her perfect pizza — something that might be of some concern to hungry you and me — but more on that a bit later.)
First, let me say I\’ve never had an authentic Napoletana pizza because I\’ve never been to Naples. In fact, I\’ve never been to Italy except once, by mistake, while driving through the fog in what I thought was Switzerland. And while I\’m confessing, I\’ve never really understood the fascination with pizza. It would be way down my list of last supper options. Give me a great sandwich any day over a slice of variations on toasted dough.
But for those for whom it is a weekly craving, this is the place to have it. This pizza is far from the muck my boys like. (If you like the muck my boys like, you might wonder where the inch of gooey cheese has gone or the slick of salty oil, or why you can\’t order it extra large with extra pineapple.) But if you\’re looking for something more raffinato, closer to what they serve in Napoli, you will find this pizza very good.
You can eat it outside, if you can find a lovely day, on one of two enormous patios that seat something like 170, or choose one of 150 seats inside, on two levels in a space that\’s bright, smart and comfortable. The rooms can be noisy, the place crowded, and the staff can be overwhelmed at times. Sometimes, that very good pizza can take upward of an hour to arrive. On my first visit, it took 73 minutes.
So while you wait, order the delicious calamari starter — char-grilled, spicy tender tubes, served on a bed of arugula. You can also begin with meatballs — big, moist and well seasoned. The beet salad with fresh mozzarella and toasted pine nuts is another way to pass the time. And if you chop up those wonderful Sicilian anchovies that crown the Nizzarda (think NiÃ§oise) and spread them around the dull potatoes, beans, tuna, etc., you will discover the flavour and salt the salad seemed to lackI\’ve had mixed luck with pasta at The Grand. The Pappardelle a Casa certainly reads well (\”porcini mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, prosciutto di Parma, garlic, al olio\”), but the dish is surprisingly dull. The linguine di mare is too soupy, with scallops like tough little bullets. And for a restaurant that prides itself on authentic ingredients, the disposable plastic bottle with the built-in grater for a block of questionable Parmesan cheese seems mighty odd.
But the main event is very good. These are thin-crust pizzas — though not too thin, about a foot in diameter — with a soft, pliable texture and a lovely char-aroma that remind me of really good naan bread. The tomato sauce is vibrant and the toppings are blessedly uncomplicated — tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, herbs, anchovies, arugula, mushrooms, Italian cold cuts and cheeses. Other than the ridiculous paucity of basil (I counted one large leaf, torn in four) on the Margherita pizza, and the decision to shred the bufala mozzarella rather than leaving it in soft, gooey mounds (what does the associazione say about that?), I\’ve enjoyed every pizza I\’ve tried. If these were the pies on offer just before my dawn firing squad, I might bump pizza up the list.
I\’m particularly partial to the tomato-less funghi pizza, which has the off-putting description \”cream of mushroom\” but has good woodsy flavour, beginning with a bottom layer of thyme-scented duxelle, a top layer of whole milk mozzarella and a middle layer of mixed mushrooms, boosted only slightly (thank you) with truffle oil.
If you\’ve started with squid or meatballs, I\’d say these pizzas are shareable, but for most people, treat them like personal pizzas, with maybe a slice saved for a snack.
There is a solid wine list with ample choice, mostly Italian. If you\’ve ordered the Brunello and don\’t want to drink it out of tumblers, ask for a proper glass. They do have some of those.
Mostly, The Grand is a jolly place with great pizza, a gathering place for young and old, inside and outside, and that makes it a fine addition to the Ottawa restaurant community. It is also a seven-day-a-week operation, open early, closed late, serving many, and it has all the inherent problems of all of that. Sometimes service is terrific, sometimes it isn\’t. Sometimes the kitchen and the pizzaiolo are taxed and you wait, and sometimes everything flies out in a timely fashion.
I\’ve been four times and I\’ve experienced the busy ebb and flow. But I\’ll be back — when one of those (now maybe once-a-month) cravings for pizza hits me hard.