Growing up in an Italian household, finishing everything on my plate and asking for seconds became requirements at my grandparents’ house. Lucky for me, I’ve developed quite an appetite for carbohydrates and homemade wine. Though I was blessed with two Italian grandmothers, whose main priority was to excessively feed their families, I have been repeatedly faced with this question: Which nonna cooks better? I have never been faced with a tougher decision—until I had to choose between these two pizza spots that is.
The beauty of a pizza is that you can top it and spice it up to reflect any culture, whether it may be with pineapple for Hawaii, jalapenos for Mexico or Tandoori chicken for India. It is a blank canvas whose roots go back to Napoli (Naples).
Italians take their pizza very seriously. It is an art form, a combination between the right balance of delicious ingredients. A crust that is perfectly cooked when the bottom isn’t burned and the slice can hold its own. A fresh tomato sauce that isn’t too sweet or too acidic, with a kick to it without being spicy. The toppings must be fresh, and if homemade—even better.
Though this may not be Italy, Montreal isn’t lacking good pizza. In fact, we even have a few pizzerias that have been approved to reach authentic Italian standards. I’ve been assigned on this journey to compare two pizzeria giants and conclude on a winner. The first, Il Focolaio; a downtown gem with a busy clientele. The second, Pizzeria Napoletana; a Montreal landmark and symbol for Little Italy. I suggest you order a pizza before you read on—this will be torture if you have an empty stomach.
Il Focolaio is a family-run pizzeria that has developed quite a reputation since 1984. It’s clean and spacious with an open-kitchen concept that’s fun to watch while waiting for your pizza. There’s a huge Italian flag over the bar, right beside the two televisions that are usually playing a soccer game. The front removable window is a great touch in the summer if you’re not the type to eat out in the heat.
Its prime location in Phillips Square is great for people-watching in the summer on the terrace, but it could sometimes lead to a wait during the lunchtime rush. The service is always fast and pleasant and even with the large selection of pizzas, I have never witnessed a wrong order.
With a choice of 70 pizzas and five calzones, the menu can be quite overwhelming to a newcomer. Lucky for the rookies, the menu offers a legend that helps categorize the pizzas under cheese, meat, seafood, vegetables and even tofu.
The chefs are extremely generous with the toppings and always manage to be consistent with the wood-oven thin crust. There’s just the right amount of tomato sauce to taste without making the pizza too soggy. Even without the spicy oil, the sauce has a little kick to it that brings all the delicious ingredients together. My personal favourite is #59, the Capo Franco: a thin-crust pizza topped with tomato sauce, capicollo, mozzarella, eggplant, garlic and blue cheese.
Pizzeria Napoletana is a Montreal landmark, a beloved favourite since 1948. Even after six decades, this pizzeria is still one of the last remaining Italian restaurants in Little Italy. For some, it is a reminder of the community they grew up in and a taste of the old country. “It’s home sweet home,” said 53-year-old Pizza Napoletana regular Julia Clarizio. “It feels like being at my mother’s around the kitchen table.”
The restaurant may not be in the middle of St-Laurent, but its location on Dante is not one to be forgotten. With an open terrace in the summer, across the street from a park and a church, the restaurant has a very “old paese” feeling to it. The inside is very spacious and has many long tables for big groups. Even after all these years, the fake tree in the middle of the room still stands strong.
What people love about Pizzeria Napoletana is that they haven’t changed recipes over the decades. The technique and ingredients have been passed on from generation to generation. The crust is a little thicker than Focolaio’s, but it’s light and evenly thin throughout the whole pizza. The toppings are perfectly dispersed to get a taste of everything with each bite. The arugula is fresh, the mozzarella di bufala is coated with a touch of olive oil, and the prosciutto is the real deal. The tomato sauce is impeccable and made fresh everyday. Oh, and I forgot to mention, it’s a bring your own wine restaurant—a perfect place to bring your nonno’s homemade wine, or to just save some money off the bill by bringing your own favourite bottle.
I don’t like to take sides and choose one over the other, because honestly, they’re two of my favourite pizzerias in Montreal. However, if I had to choose which one to bring my cousin from Italy, it would be Pizzeria Napoletana.
Why? Besides the location and homey feeling of the restaurant, it was the tomato sauce that did it for me. You could dress a pizza with the best ingredients, but if the sauce isn’t great, then your pizza is a fail. It’s the nonna of toppings; she may sometimes be overbearing, but without her, the family, like the pizza, falls apart.
Il Focolaio is located at 1223 Square-Phillips St. in downtown Montreal. Click here to visit their website, where you can check out their menu. Pizza Napoletana is located at 189 Dante St. in Rosemont.