A half-century of excellence and local touches like shredded pepperoni make Windsor an unlikely, but rewarding, destination for pizza lovers
Windsor may have the best pizza in Canada. Based on Billy’s research (which involved me eating more of the stuff in three days than I had in the previous three years), it has some of the most stellar examples in North America.
For anyone who may doubt it, the city is enjoying a newfound reputation for having some of the most stellar slices around. It even has its own distinct style. As Kevin Kalaydijan, co-owner at the original location of Capri Pizza explains, a Windsor-style pizza crust strikes a balance between thin (like New York’s) and thick (like Chicago’s), and there are unique approaches to toppings, notably shredded pepperoni.
Windsor-style pizza was good enough to win over judges at the 2014 International Pizza Challenge in Las Vegas where local outfits competed against makers from Italy, Australia and United States. Windsor’s Armando’s placed in the top three in two categories (traditional pizza and gluten-free). The accolades marked the beginning of what locals always known: Windsor’s pizzas are the best.
Ready to find out for yourself whether it’s true? Here are five Windsor pizzerias where you can begin your journey.
Terra Cotta Gourmet Pizzeria
This downtown pizza-centric restaurant is trapped in a 1980s décor time capsule, and traditional toppings rule the menu. Create your own with any of the 41 available (unusual ones include shrimp, tapenade and swiss cheese). Or order one of the standards. The eponymous “Terra Cotta,” for example, is loaded with spinach, eggplant, green peppers, olives, artichokes and onions. The tasty “ la blonda” pizza swaps out tomato sauce in favour of pesto and comes dressed prettily with feta, zucchini and chicken. The crust is a winner – thin and crisp, delivering an audible crunch with each bite. The dough is made daily and that’s crystal clear from the taste.
Knowing that everyone wants to enjoy its wood-fired pizza, Terra Cotta offers vegan versions, using Daiya cheese (made from tapioca flour), ideal for those eating a plant-based diet. Gluten-free crusts are also an option.
318 Pellisier St., 519-971-0223
La Zingara Trattoria
Don’t ask for gluten-free pizza here. That would be blasphemous at a place like this – one that prides itself on tradition, tried-and-true preparations. While pasta and other Italian classics are served here, it’s the wood-fired pizza oven that holds court at the centre of the dining room, its flames casting a soft glow over a space that looks like it was plucked straight from Rome.
The “stagioni” arrives piping hot, a shimmer of oil glistening and beckoning the diner to dive in. The crust is a bit thicker than Terra Cotta’s and that’s a not a bad thing. It strikes a harmonious balance between chewiness and doughiness. After an initial crunch, you’re in the middle of a pillowy soft crust. It’s a real delight. But wait, there’s something different about this sauce. It has a robustness to it and tastes like really good, fresh tomatoes in season. The secret is that the sauce is slathered on pizzas raw. The cooking happens just in the oven and not before, and this keeps the flavour lively. It’s a genius idea – one that ensured any leftover slices came home with me.
769 Erie St. E., 519-258-7555
The locals have become a bit zealous about Capri since it opened in 1975. Windsorites are fiercely loyal to this local chain, and might even arm wrestle you to the ground if you don’t think it’s the best, too. Their version is the epitome of Windsor-style pizza. Capri does some fancy crimping to the edge, and its pepperoni is not what you might be used to. It’s not sliced into neat discs, it’s finely shredded. This gives you more substantial meat coverage over the surface of the pizza, and you don’t get those pools of fat. It works.
My meat lover’s pie, dished out at the original Dougall Avenue location (plus 11 other locations) lands on my table in a dark dining room looking like it’s ready for a photo shoot. That unique edge really gives the pizza a beauty boost. When I hold the slice, it doesn’t sag at all. The bottom is perfectly baked, golden and crispy – not soggy, oily, or covered with flour (ick). The first bite reveals a slight sweetness to the sauce, enough to add complexity without being overwhelming. The cheese is wonderfully chewy, courtesy of the high-fat mozzarella used from a local supplier, the Galati Cheese Company.
I understand now why those who have moved away from Windsor make Capri their first stop when their back home. I know I’ll crave this one again, too. As Kalaydijan says: “When you hold a pizza box from us in your hand, you feel real happiness.”
3020 Dougall Ave., 519-969-6851
This spot, decorated in a mish-mash of booze-related antiques, Art Deco light fixtures and barn board, is housed in a former nightclub taps into the area’s bootlegging history. It features reclaimed bricks and wooden beams salvaged from the old Seagram’s distillery in nearby Amherstburg. They say Al Capone was a guest (but then lots of places in Windsor and Detroit say that). Even the water comes in retired whisky bottles.
The folks here don’t make any qualms about playing with their food. They like to have fun with flavours – mix it up, for better or for worse. They’re serious about making things taste good, so be patient as they figure out what works and doesn’t. The menu here is small, compact and good for those who become easily paralyzed by too many choices. It’s all about sliders and pizza, and there are about a dozen choices for each.
I give the crispy duck pizza a try. It has a thin crust, a bit on the flabby side, and it’s covered in smoky tender duck morsels, crispy onions and drizzled with hoisin sauce. It’s a tasty combination of sweet and salty. The “pep” comes with ample layer of shredded pepperoni – that Windsor favourite again – and sauce that brings the heat, courtesy of a generous dosing of Frank’s Red Hot.
The oddball s’mores pizza is the star of the lineup. A layer of Nutella covers a thin crust while beautifully golden toasted marshmallows dot the landscape, slashed with a ribbon of chocolate sauce to finish. One slice is plenty. I think I might go into a coma at any second, but it would be a sweet ending. I place all the pizza I tried here in the “novelty” category. They are fun and unconventional, but pizza purists may weep.
911 Walker Rd., 226-221-9969
This popular pizzeria has plenty to brag about it. Judges voted it the third-best in the world in the traditional pizza category during that 2014 international competition in Las Vegas. This was shocking to some because the winning pizza was topped with lowly canned (canned!) mushrooms and shredded pepperoni. How did such a pizza win over the judges? Its traditional, straight-up, no-party-tricks sauce and perfectly executed, chewy, crispy, tender crust.
But why? Armando’s is old school and proud of it. There’s no fancy stuff going on in the dough or the sauce. It’s just about drilling down to basics. The “Mediterranean” pizza has star quality, slathered in a colourful mélange of black olives, feta, roasted red pepper, sun-dried tomatoes, and all-natural mozzarella sourced locally. It’s love at first bite. The crust doesn’t buckle under the weight of the toppings. It’s firm and crisp, yet tender at the same time. I see why the judges were seduced.
Armando’s says its true Windsor-style pizza recipe hasn’t changed since 1967, when the original location opened its doors on Walker Road. (There are now four other locations.) And that’s the way the locals want it. They tolerate it offering gluten-free and whole-wheat variations, but the overall attitude is “don’t mess with a good thing.” The pizzeria’s loyal followers are found all over Canada. Our server says that devotees will come and order a king-sized pizza (32 slices), have it partially cooked and pack it into their suitcases for the flight home. That’s amore.
This being the last stop of my tour, I can’t eat another bite, so I surrender early after a lone slice. Back home, even the leftover slices, served cold, warm my heart.
3202 Walker Rd., 519-966-2760