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Road Trip: Eating Pies a la Quebecois
Earlier this spring, I embarked on my first road trip through Quebec, starting in Montreal and heading to parts east. While planning my food-heavy itinerary, I heard from some local pizza enthusiasts that there were a couple of great pies scattered across the province. I was curious to see if they resembled the Montreal old-school style—doughy, sloppy, and stacked high with toppings—or if they had their own particular qualities.
Quebec City: Gerry Pizza
On our first night, we stopped in Quebec City, a three and a half hour drive from Montreal. When visiting the province's capital, most travelers head straight to its picturesque, cobbled walled city. But for pizza lovers, there's another fascinating destination, and it's just outside of the city center in the arrondissement of Charlesbourg. Plonked unceremoniously on a nondescript, traffic-heavy thoroughfare, Gerry Pizza makes some of the weirdest, most memorable Quebec old-school style pizza that you'll ever find.
Don't let the generic roadside signage or the building's splintering façade throw you off— through Gerry's doors is like wandering into another world. The central dining room, with its heavy blackout curtains and gingham-clad tables, is a kitschy respite from the traffic just outside. Stapled to the wall underneath the cash register, a plastic sign proclaiming 'OUI!'—a not-so-subtle reference to the restaurant's affiliation with the Quebec Separatist Party, which promotes the secession of the province from the rest of Canada—tells you everything you need to know about this restaurant's French-Canadian political leanings.
Gerry Pizza specializes in voluptuous, old-fashioned pies snugly fitted into stainless steel skillets—exactly the style that I've been on the hunt for in Montreal, about a three-hour drive away. (Their Facebook page has a terrific gallery of photos). At Gerry's, the medium-thick crust pies are small, but dense with toppings, sweetened tomato sauce, and bubbling, oozing mozzarella cheese. It's totally un-gourmet, but Gerry's has been a hit with Quebeckers since it opened in 1968.
Gerry's fanciful fruits de mer, which is topped with a swarm of pink shrimp from the Matane region and fat, glistening scallops, is one pizza that you will never find in the rest of the province. It's also staggeringly expensive, clocking in at $31.95 for a medium and $45.95 for the large. The shrimp and scallops were packed into a sheer mosaic, just barely contained by its baking pan. The translucent morsels, which were crowded up to the edge of the pie, left zero room for crust. (It wasn't possible to get a glimpse of cheese or sauce, either). The crust was a beauty, though, with an addictive, caramelized crunch around the edges, and a puffy, lightweight interior. A tangy swirl of vermillion tomato sauce was way sweeter than their house blend—think ketchup-enriched cocktail dip. There was a scant sprinkling of shredded mozzarella, but you could barely taste it through the vinegar and sugar.
Gerry's fruits de mer pie—a fantastical explosion of ocean marshmallows— was bizarre looking, but it also had undeniable charm. Unfortunately, the seafood, which was pre-frozen and likely added to the pie after it was removed from the oven, didn't have that just-fished flavor. Maybe it wasn't the most delicious pie I've had in Quebec, but it was certainly one of the most memorable.
The bacon pie isn't listed on the menu, but if you ask for a medium fromage ($15.05) and add bacon ($5.15) then you'll be able to experience a nearly-perfect old-school style pie. Like most Quebec pizza I've eaten, their house blend tomato sauce still skews pretty sweet, but here, it's a great backdrop for the undulating waves of crisp, salty bacon and mild, shredded mozzarella. (And it must be said that thickly cut strips of bacon taste so much better than the greasy confetti that usually litters most Montreal pies). Curiously, this pie had no visible crust, either, which is a pity, because the dough had a comforting softness, a little like a chewy, pliant breadstick.
Kamouraska: Pizza Mag
A few days later, we drove up to Kamouraska, a remote village running along the banks of the Saint Lawrence River. There are plenty of foodie destinations in Kamouraska, but I had my sights set on Pizza Mag, which was roundly recommended to us by Kamouraska native David McMillan, one of the owner of Montreal restaurant Joe Beef.
We sampled at least eight or ten pies. Most of Pizza Mag's business is driven by the thrum of summer tourist season, but in the off-season you can join the locals, who sit around chatting, drinking wine, and sharing slices. Here, the slim, crisp, medium-thin crust pies, served on aluminum pizza pans, are more reminiscent of the Neapolitan-American style than the pies at Gerry Pizza. Pizza Mag offers more upscale French-Canadian ingredients, too, like crème fraiche, escargots, white wine, blue cheese, shallots, and wild mushrooms.
Pizza Mag's tastiest dishes were also their most creative, including a savory, smoky pie called La Kamouraska ($28 for a 12-inch pie), which was topped with extra virgin olive oil, mozzarella, smoked sturgeon, onions, cilantro, and freshly squeezed lemon juice. (La Prétentieuse, which comes with smoked salmon, chèvre, caviar, and capers, is an even more luxe option). Smoked seafood on pizza is tough to execute well, but Pizza Mag's delicate approach honored both the region's fishing economy and ancient pizza traditions.
More simple pies, like the Dijonaise ($26 for a 12-inch pie), which had a garlicky spread of mustard, tomato sauce, Emmenthal, Parmesan, and thyme, or the Biquette ($23 for a 12-inch pie), which featured tangy hunks of chèvre, diced scallions, and black pepper, were equally satisfying.
More standard pizza combinations, like their Végétarienne ($19 for a 12-inch pie), which had a well-balanced array of tomatoes, mushrooms, onions and green olives, and the swarthy Champignon ($19 for a 12-inch pie), with its sauteed cèpes, mozzarella, garlic, Parmesan, and dried oregano, were perfectly serviceable. Pizza Mag isn't breaking new ground, but the restrained approach to sauce, dough thickness, toppings, and cheese is a refreshing alternative to Montreal's maximalist style.
Though quite different in style and aesthetic, both Pizza Mag and Gerry Pizza have an unassuming, easygoing charm, true to the generous French-Canadian spirit. Maybe it's not the fanciest or most professional pie you've ever had, but it's a ton of fun. If you embark on a Quebec road trip, you'll do well to stop by both of these unique spots to see how the rest of the province eats its pizza.
About the Author: Natasha Pickowicz is a San Diego-born food writer currently based in Montreal. She is also the baker at Montreal restaurant Dépanneur Le Pick Up. She contributes to the Kinfolk Magazine, Montreal Gazette, the Montreal Mirror, and Acquired Taste Magazine. You can find her on Twitter at @natashapickowiz.