Biting into a slice of Tony's pizza, it's the thick bocconcini that hits you first, steamy and fresh. It's followed by crispy slices of prosciutto and capicollo that have curled at the edges and, finally, the tangy sauce, perfected by the owners over six decades.
This is what one of the world's best pizzas should taste like.
Yet Tony Mazzotta Jr. shrugs when he talks about the attention his pizza has been getting since luxury magazine Condé Nast Traveler named his restaurant, Tony's Pizza Palace, when it crowned Edmonton the eighth-best pizza city in the world last April.
While Alberta's capital is better known for its hockey or oil industry, Mazzotta says his hometown's collection of classic pizza joints has always set it apart.
The city turns out everything from traditional to thin-crust pizzas to offerings piled high with white sauce and prawns. "You can't have a bad meal in Edmonton," he says.
Edmonton has had an outsized influence on Canada's pizza culture, birthing both the Boston Pizza and Famoso Pizza chains. Locals credit a city with a rich multicultural quilt, high incomes, a love of comfort foods and a series of small restaurants that have stayed within the same families, maintaining traditions for decades.
The city's restaurants have the know-how to turn out great Italian food, with a pinch of Canadian accent thrown in, says Fausto Chinellato, the general manager of Edmonton's Italian Cultural Centre. "As an Italian, I won't go to an Italian restaurant. I'd rather cook at home. But I do go out for pizza. They have a nice, thin crust," he adds.
Tony's Pizza Palace, with its unassuming concrete façade, is one of the staples of Edmonton's pizza world. Its been in a rundown part of the capital city for decades. Inside, an Italian radio station plays amid the shouts of patrons and staff. The prints and photos on the walls show off its history.
"The family trade goes back nearly 60 years and that's what sets us apart. When you do something for that long you usually get it right," Mazzota said, pausing. "And it's very good now."
Mazzotta's father, Antonio, opened his first Edmonton restaurant in the 1970s, after moving from New York. He lived in the United States for most of the 1960s, learning the New York-style of pizza making. A black-and-white photo of the patriarch in a chef's hat still hangs in the middle of the restaurant, though he's since moved back to his hometown in southern Italy.
Mazzotta now runs the restaurant with his brother Sal. The two men learned how to cook at their father's side, where he imparted his recipe for thick sauces, thin crusts and a respect for good ingredients. "If I won't eat it, I won't send it to my customers," Mazzotta says – a smart strategy, since some regulars come back two or three times a week.
The bocconcini and prosciutto pizza is $23 for a 12-inch medium. There's also a margherita pizza with fresh basil and the recent addition of a pizza with arugula – an interesting mixture of bitter vegetable, sweet tomatoes and salty prosciutto. That one is Mazzotta's favourite, and only available during the summer months when the greens are fresh.
Edmonton's pizza scene has thrived despite being in a city that doesn't provide most of the necessary ingredients. Few of the Italian meats are cured in the Prairies, the cheese comes from the east and nearly all the herbs are imported.
On the south side, the Parkallen is another long-time fixture. It's a favourite of high-profile Edmontonians: Mayor Don Iveson has called it his favourite, and the restaurant was a place of pilgrimage back in the 1980s, when Wayne Gretzky, Paul Coffey and Mark Messier were regulars.
Like Mazzotta, Joe Rustom took over the restaurant after his Lebanese father ran it for decades. However, the similarities end there: Parkallen's offerings are far less simple. The house special is thick, piled high with mushrooms, pepperoni, ham, green peppers, onions, pineapple slices and olives.
"I still love my bacon pizza, with real slices of bacon, thick mozzarella cheese and hand-rolled dough," Rustom says. "Two slices leave me full. I go to these Italian pizzerias and I can eat the whole thing."
The flair at Parkallen is in the toppings, with peppers that snap when crunched, as well as ham and pineapple slices baked into the ample cheese. The bestseller is a Greek pizza piled high with feta and olives. Rustom says he aims to have about five times more toppings on each pizza than the competition.
"It's been that way since we started," he says. His father's mantra was that no one should leave the restaurant hungry. "I've been to Toronto, their pizzas are awful. Montreal, the same thing, they have no idea what they're doing," Rustom says.
Packrat Louie is Edmonton's dip into adventure. In an old building in trendy Old Strathcona, the restaurant's bestseller is a pizza that marries a thick layer of stringy cheese with squeezed lemon juice. The eclectic menu also offers a pizza with lox, mascarpone and capers; another with brisket, pickles and Gruyère; and a seafood option with prawns and spinach.
While the restaurant's staff has been making pizzas in a wood-fired oven since the 1980s, the menu is always changing. "It's inspired by what the staff and owners currently like. It's shared creativity," said Charlotte Voegeli, the restaurant's assistant manager.
In a city where the winter months are long and cold, people need a vast array of comforting pizzas, from old school offerings to the newfangled fare. "You can have a classic pizza at Tony's or go to RoseBowl and have a four-inch thick pizza with tzatziki sauce on it," Mazzotta says. "That's what helps make Edmonton special."