GERRARD SPAGHETTI & PIZZA (1528 Danforth, at Rhodes, 416-463-7792) It might be easy to write off this 35-year-old pizza 'n' pasta parlour's time-warp decor -- net curtains, maps on the wall, TV over the bar -- but there's no ignoring its excellent pies topped with contemporary flare and baked with old-school skill on a skinny crust. Complete pizza meals for $23 per person, including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Open Monday 4 to 11 pm, Tuesday to Thursday 11:30 am to 11 pm, Friday 11:30 am to midnight, and Saturday 3 pm to midnight. Closed Sunday and holidays. Fully licensed. Smoke-free. Access: barrier-free, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN
with a face stuffed full of gerrard pizza, it's hard to believe how far the savoury pie has come.
When I was growing up in the suburban 60s, pizza was something that came in a box labelled Kraft and tasted like watered-down ketchup spread on cardboard.
It wasn't until I ventured into the inner city and discovered joints like Harbord's Pizza Gigi that I came across the real Neapolitan thing: thick, doughy crusts spread with homemade tomato sauce, topped with lotsa mozza and spicy pepperoni.
Anyone who added pineapple chunks was considered edgy in 1966. That was the year the Greco family opened Gerrard Spaghetti & Pizza in Toronto's east end. Ten years later, after building a following for their traditional pies, they moved the business to the Danforth. But since there was already a Danforth Pizza, they kept their original name.
Gourmet pizza hadn't been invented. Credit Wolfgang Puck with first dreaming up the designer pizza at West Hollywood's chic Spago in the late 80s: cracker-thin crusts spread with luxe ingredients like duck sausage, grilled squash and shiitake 'shrooms.
Locally, Terroni (see sidebar, this page) followed Puck's lead. Every other pizzeria, meanwhile, painted the word "gourmet" onto the sign out front without adding anything more exotic than pineapple to the menu.
Gerrard Pizza's looks are unpretentious, but the superlative pies are gourmet in the real sense. It's a friendly family spot that specializes in satisfying pasta dishes as well as pizzas that are second only to Terroni's. It's that good.
Among the best, the Riccardo ($14.50) features a perfectly baked slim, crisp crust painted with pulpy tomato sauce and layered with sundried tomato, mozzarella, button mushrooms and sensational slabs of sweet, skinless roasted red pepper. Over that, a crumble of blue cheese and a toss of fresh basil leaves complete the picture. Vulcano ($14) lives up to its explosive name: regulation tomato sauce, basil, and mozzarella detonated by fiery chilies, piquant Crotonese cheese (made of sheep's and goat's milk) and garlicky dry-cured Sopressata salami.
The pizza known as Nancy ($13.25) sees Gerrard's great crust minimally dressed with nutty pesto and Yukon Gold potato slices that are just the right toothsome thickness, not thin and dried out or bulky and bland. A mix of creamy cheeses -- fior di latte and chèvre -- finishes this subtlest of pies. And if there's any leftover crust, don't feed it to the dog. Instead, dip it in Gerrard's jars of hellaciously spiced homegrown chilies in olive oil ($5 small/$9 large).
Location scouts looking for an archetypal pizza parlour for a movie shoot should head straight for Danforth Pizza (920 Danforth, at Jones, 416-463-4927). A basic no-frills spot that's been a neighbourhood fixture since 1969, Danforth offers straight-forward old-school pies like its House Special ($12.50, including tax, for a 14-inch medium), a thick-crusted circle topped with standard tomato sauce, gooey mozzarella, pepperoni, green pepper, mushrooms, bacon and essential anchovies. Classic.
Toronto's longest-running pizzeria, Vesuvio (3010 Dundas West, at High Park, 416-763-4191) has been baking New York-style pizza in the west end since 1957. Of the three 14-inch small pizzas I sample, I like the Mediterranean ($14.25), a too-thick base minimally spread with smoky sun-dried tomato, roasted red pepper, feta and wimpy canned black olives. Dogs will enjoy the leftover crusts.
Judging by the rest of its lineup -- souvlaki, kabobs, gyros -- Bigman's (1528 Bayview, at Millwood, 416-485-8888) can be called an eastern Mediterranean pizzeria. I like the 13-inch medium (the smallest size here) Love It Or Leave It ($14.99), a neither-thick-nor-thin pesto-spread crust piled with gloopy tomato sauce, double spinach, red pepper sections, mushrooms and garlic.
With its garish singles bar atmosphere, Runyx (108 Dundas West, at Bay, 416-593-1118) won't have to redecorate when the late 80s revival hits five years from now. Even more off-putting are its weird oval pizzas built on crusts made from hemp flour. Dry and gritty, the two I try -- Four Seasons ($10.75) and Fromanda ($12.75) -- have run-of-the-mill toppings that underwhelm.
And though gluten-free hemp flour has health benefits, it tastes like hay to me. Flashing back to the marijuana brownie I experimented with at a love-in, I have the same reaction now -- I chew, but I do not swallow.