While the skeptics might say there's no such thing as Toronto-style pizza, that may have changed with the emergence of an only-in-Toronto cultural fusion.
Once the domain of newly immigrated Italian families in pizza shops scattered throughout the city, some of Toronto's best slices are now made by Vietnamese pizza-makers who have taken over from second-generation Italians with little appetite for continuing the family business.
With tender, medium-thick crust, savoury marinara sauce and gooey mozzarella topped with fresh basil, the Toronto-style slice is distinguished by a dousing of garlic-and-basil-infused oil, applied with a brush – an Italian twist on the Vietnamese tradition of adding oil and onions to noodles.
It's a sign of the city's true multiculturalism that pizza here can be dislodged from its origins while maintaining its authenticity. And while pizza is perhaps the most globalized food, severed from its Italian roots long ago, not all of it is created equally (and, in that regard, we can leave the debate over the city's boom in Neapolitan-style pizzerias for another day).
To taste the Toronto-style slice for yourself, head to Fresca Pizza and Pasta (302 College St.). Housed in a handsome brick edifice, Fresca is owned and operated by Vien and Lieu Huynh, a couple who immigrated from Vietnam in the 1980s.
University students, late-night partiers and pizza aficionados alike pack the pizzeria from midday to well past midnight, coming back for Fresca's affordable ($3.50) and mouth-watering slices. The Huynhs keeps it simple, offering margherita, pepperoni, deluxe and caprese pizzas. Garlic oil is available on the counter, with a brush for application.
Before opening Fresca, Mr. Huynh had been making pizzas for close to two decades at this very spot. It was called Massimo's and it was a College Street institution for 32 years, often making it onto ever-contentious "best slice in town" lists in the alternative weeklies.
Quickly climbing the ranks from delivery driver, Mr. Huynh mastered the Massimo family's secret recipes to become the shop's best pizza-maker. He also helped invent the garlic oil and Massimo's became known for the delicious innovation.
"I got the job from a friend who also just moved from Vietnam," Mr. Huynh recalls. The two continued to recommend their friends for positions. Eventually, Massimo's was almost entirely staffed by Vietnamese immigrants, many of whom came from Hue.
Located in central Vietnam, Hue is a city known for its food. Home to Vietnam's monarchs from 1802 to 1945, locals developed an advanced cooking culture to cater to the finicky rulers' needs. Hue's high standards for cooking contributed to the readiness of many of Massimo's Vietnamese cooks to learn the craft behind what would have been an unfamiliar food to them before starting the job.
When Vinny Massimo died in 2002, his son Tony took over the pizzeria. Less interested in the business than his father, Tony neglected Massimo's and tensions between the management and staff started negatively affecting the pizzeria. Tony eventually fired most of the Vietnamese cooks, including Mr. Huynh. He then attempted to revive the pizzeria by rebranding it as Vinny Massimo's following its appearance on the Food Network's Restaurant Makeover in 2008.
The rebranding didn't work. Without the Vietnamese cooks, the quality of Vinny Massimo's pizza was in decline. Loyal patrons took note on food blogs and online reviews – "it is a shameful decline from what had, only months before, been the best slice joint in the city" observed one commenter; those famous slices had become tasteless, tiny and cold.
What proved to be signs of Vinny Massimo's ultimate demise was its temporary closing by city inspectors in 2009. Two months later, a fire forced Vinny Massimo's to be relocated to Queen and Dovercourt. (A second shop was eventually opened on College, a few blocks west of the first location.)
The Massimo family did not respond to requests for an interview with The Globe.
Meanwhile, undeterred from his termination, Mr. Huynh and his wife took a lease on the original Massimo's spot after it was repaired and restored by the landlord. When Fresca opened in 2011, they began to make pizzas the way Massimo's used to. Another online commenter related that they had been eating Mr. Huynh's pizza once a week for the past 25 years – "thank goodness I still can!"
The two pizzerias were in direct competition until Vinny Massimo's, unable to retain its former glory, shut down both its locations in 2013.
"We all went through the Massimo's school," Mr. Huynh says. "After learning from Massimo's, a lot of us opened our own pizzerias." It's at these Vietnamese-owned pizzerias that Mr. Huynh and his former colleagues are upholding the cherished recipes in lieu of Massimo's itself.
There is King Slice (1598 Bloor St. W.), owned and operated by former Massimo's cook Tin Nguyen. He's even opened a second location in the former Vinny Massimo's at Queen and Dovercourt (1130 Queen St. W.). Flashier than Fresca and a little less consistent, King Slice's pizza nevertheless lives up to its Massimo's roots, with soft, medium-thick crusts, complete with a brush of garlic oil.
There's also Thyme (890 The Queensway) in Etobicoke, started by former Massimo's pizza-maker Long Quach, where, yes, the garlic oil is available for brushing.
And while not a former employee of Massimo's, Don Tudo is another Vietnamese pizza-maker from Hue, whose brother went to grade school with Mr. Nguyen from King Slice. Mr. Tudo took over Capi's (4247 Dundas St. W. ) in Etobicoke when the owner's children passed on the opportunity. Despite their promise, the Reda family didn't provide Mr. Tudo with the secret recipes that made the pizzeria a fixture in South Etobicoke. Determined to crack the code, he spent months researching pizza recipes.
"I learned from Hue to demand the highest quality in food," says Mr. Tudo, describing the accomplishment he felt when he came upon a pizza recipe that Capi's loyal customers finally embraced.
Back at Fresca, it's wonderful to witness pizza lovers have the quintessential Toronto-style slice for the first time. Busy devouring a slice of margherita, a new customer who had heard about Fresca from his cousins took a moment to reflect.
"It's the garlic oil that takes the slice from great," he managed to say between mouthfuls, "to 'I have lost the power of speech.'" Behind him, a line of those in the know eagerly waiting for Mr. Hyunh to pull their slices from the oven were quick to agree.