Though I often say that all pizza is good pizza, eating a Montreal old-school pie is still a gamble. Too often does the pie arrive wet and gloppy, weighted with sub-par ingredients from a can, leaving your fingers slick with neon grease and your stomach leaden and churning.
Not to be discouraged, I've spent the last year hunting for the old-school jackpot: thick, crisp pies ringed with a golden, crunchy-yet-chewy thick crust, topped with a concentrated tomato sauce that leans slightly sweet, and finished with an intricate layering of spicy meats, sautéed vegetables, and shredded cheese.
I've traveled all over the city—Outremont to Rivière des Prairies to Petite Italie to Lachine and back again—searching for pizza bliss, and, happily, have found many worthy iterations along the way. But I hadn't visited LaSalle, a southern borough in Montreal beloved for its traditional old-school style pies.
Two LaSalle pizzerias, Centrale and Dani's, were first brought to my attention by Ryan Dixon, the owner and chef at Little Burgundy haunt Jane. Dixon grew up in LaSalle, where he feasted on the hefty slices from the neighborhood's most popular fluorescent-lit pizzerias. "LaSalle's Centrale is great because everything is really simple," he told me. "And it goes great with a hangover."
That was all the endorsement I needed. I stopped by Dani's first, where I was enthusiastically greeted by the friendly staff. Dani's has a loyal following—they'll even ship their pies as far away as Vancouver to keep their homesick customers happy.
I ordered "Dani's Spéciale," an all-dressed pie ("tout garnie," or topped with green peppers, pepperoni, and mushrooms) boosted with bacon and chopped onions. (The 12-inch pie is $16.95).
I was disappointed by the crust's wan appearance, which was smooth, pale, and unblemished. The cheese, while plentiful, had a barely-melted snowy white hue instead of the crackling golden spots that give away a truly great pizza.
Even the crispy bits of bacon (which I happily popped into my mouth like delicate potato chips) and the striations of thickly cut pepperoni weren't enough to distract me from the dense crust, scourge of raw white onions, or the sweet tomato sauce, which hinted of cinnamon (another regional pizza flourish, and one I may never understand). Maybe it was the warm atmosphere, or the rush of dopamine from all that dough, but the pie somehow emerged greater than the sum of its parts and satisfied me.
Dani's 10-inch smoked meat pie ($11.95), another regional Montreal style, is topped with piles of thinly-shaved smoked meat tucked underneath a blanket of cheese. It's a style that's been picked up by the city's more modern restaurants like Jane or Magpie, and this was an adequate version.
It's also worth noting that Dani's occasionally bucks their whole pie-only policy, and sells wide slices of pepperoni to neighborhood school kids at lunch. Interestingly, with all those air bubbles and properly cooked cheese, these slices were a lot more gorgeous than the pies I consumed; they're definitely worth a taste.
I headed up the block to Centrale, where I ordered their version of the "Spéciale" ($17.95 for a 12-inch pizza). The Centrale pie—with its charred bits of bacon and crust—was clearly the more attractive pie. It tasted better, too, especially the chewy, yielding crust that had the tang of a great sourdough and shattered with a thrilling crunch.
The shredded mozzarella sizzled into a crispy shell atop the other ingredients, and the toppings underneath were nicely protected. (And the white onion, thank heavens, was cooked). Though Centrale's pizza was undeniably delicious and more elegantly crafted, it was curiously a lot greasier—but I've come a lot closer to accepting that grease plays an important role in this city's old-school pies. (Just don't forget napkins.)
Not all of Montreal's pizza is created equal, and it can be a frustrating battle of trial-and-error to sort out which places emerge triumphantly. Though both Dani's and Centrale are beloved by their community, Centrale was the clear winner. But if you're looking for simple, greasy satisfaction, then consider both pies hallmarks of old-school Montreal style.
7669 rue Centrale, LaSalle, Québec (map)
7610 rue Centrale, LaSalle, Québec (map)
Note: If you like your cheese golden and bubbling, ask for your pie well-done—you'll be glad you did.
About the Author: Natasha Pickowicz is a San Diego-born music and food writer, and a recent Montreal transplant. She is the baker at Montreal restaurant Dépanneur Le Pick Up. In addition to updating her food blog Popcorn Plays, she contributes to the Kinfolk Magazine, Montreal Gazette, the Montreal Mirror, and enRoute.