1168 Queen St. E. (at Jones Avenue), 647-347-1168, descendantdsp.com
421 College St. (at Bathurst Street), 416-367-4013, ramenisshin.com
A Cheap Eats pick, where you can dine well for under $30, before alcohol, tax and tip.
Last summer, I gave up on pizza. There was no single spark, no notably abominable experience. It was the sameness that got me: Everywhere, the same thin, blistered crusts, with the same artfully-placed basil leaves, the same San Marzano-based tomato sauce, the same dutifully authentic toppings. Sure, they were great, but a good 10 years into this city's thin-crust pizza boom, I'd had enough, and you could keep your chaste little mozzarella di bufala bits. I missed the time before we all became pizza connoisseurs. I missed the smell and the heft and the singularly satisfying taste of the pizzas from before the Neapolitan craze.
In the space of a couple decades, Toronto, like much of North America, has abandoned the deep-cheesy, meat-and-mushroom, sauce-and-vegetable-freighted ideal of the mom and pop neighbourhood pizza parlour. The freezer aisle is partly to blame, with its cut-rate rising crust pizzas, as are Pizza Pizza and Pizza Nova and all the other sad-sack chains.
Roman and Neapolitan pizzas came along just in time. They were new and different and made with good ingredients, and, thanks to their 900-degree wood-fired ovens, seemingly immune to competitive threats. I fell as hard as anybody. But I've missed soft, sweet crusts and molten Monterey Jack mixed with brick mozzarella, spread as thick as a mid-winter quilt.
Chris Getchell learned the trade at Pizzeria Libretto and North of Brooklyn, two of the best of the thin-crust bunch, but when it came time to go out on his own, he wanted to do something new. The 22-seat Leslieville shop he opened last summer, called Descendant Detroit Style Pizza, is the best cure I know for pizza ennui.
Detroit-style pizza is descended from Sicilian pizza: It's square instead of round, and traditionally baked in deep, heavy-gauge blue-steel pans that aren't made for the pizza industry but for holding factory parts. Once the dough's pressed into the pans and left to rise, the cheese goes on: mountains of mozzarella and brick cheese (it's a lot like Monterey Jack), or smoked Southern Italian scamorza, depending on the pie.
As the pans superheat, the cheese toasts and crisps into the crusts around the pans' edges, so that Mr. Getchell's pizzas crunch when you bite in. After the crunch, they yield like gooey grilled cheese.
All of that is merely the foundation for his toppings, and Descendant's toppings, sourced from superb local butchers and salumerie, are quite possibly the best I've had. For the pizza called "soppressata marmalade," Mr. Getchell's kitchen cooks down cubes of Dolce Lucano sausage with garlic, shallots, sherry vinegar and maple syrup, and then pulses it all into a meat-based jam. That jam is piled onto the cheese-covered crust, along with Calabrian chilies and spiced honey.
His superb "homenaje," an homage to one of the pies at Roberta's, in Brooklyn, comes mounded with fresh chorizo from Olliffe Butcher Shop, as well as punchy roasted jalapenos, lime-pickled onions, sour cream and cilantro sprigs.
His double-pepperoni pizza lays rounds of excellent sausage next to the crust, below the cheese, as well as on top; the upper layer curls and crisps in the heat and fills with bubbling pepperoni fat. After baking, the pizza's topped with the kitchen's remarkably fresh-tasting tomato sauce. That sauce is never cooked; Mr. Getchell merely brings crushed tomatoes and seasoning to temperature in a bain marie.
With every bite, the tart-sour tomato undercurrents in that unsimmered sauce temper the richness of the meat and the cheese. There is a margherita, too, but freed from the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana-style culinary Calvinism; it's thicker and gooier and infinitely more satisfying than a whole stack of properly authentic pies.
The service is quick and cheerful, and a small pie is enough for a couple of moderate appetites. The room fills quickly at dinnertime with dine-in patrons and a steady stream of take-out trade.
Lately, on the restaurant's Instagram, another pizza appeared, thanks to Descendant cooks Dinesh Kanbiah and Kishan Jayakumar. It's the standard crust, but filled with take-out kottu roti, the Tamil-style spice, bread and curry-based street food. They add cilantro sour cream after baking, as well as slivered green onions, Calabrian chilies and mango chutney, with its tart, electric sours. I haven't tried it but I am dying to. Nobody does that pizza in Naples, I'm pretty sure.
Ramen Isshin opened on College at Bathurst at the height of ramen boom a couple of years ago. I didn't bother going, but at least once a month I'd hear raves from friends and industry types. I finally gave in on a frigid night over the holidays. I am glad I did.
The shop, led by the Kingyo izakaya chef Koji Zenimaru, is charmingly unpolished and overrun with customers, like a proper Japanese ramen-ya. It does things just differently enough to separate it from the rest of the ramen pack. The noodles, made to spec by Myojo, a ramen manufacturer in California, are springier and chewier than your average, particularly the restaurant's thick tsukemen dipping version, which eat more like good Italian bucatini noodles than Japanese alkaline ones.
The broths at Isshin come in two varieties: pork-based tonkotsu, which is very good, and vegetarian, which is uncommonly rich and savoury. (It's thickened in part with potatoes, co-owner Jason Matsubara said.)
Perhaps most interestingly, Mr. Zenimaru's cooks wok-fry the ingredients for the shop's go-to red miso ramen bowls, as well as for its black sesame tan tan ramen ( a Japanese take on Sichuan dan dan noodles). The time in the wok imbues those soups with smoky, comforting wok hei.
Isshin's spicy red-miso ramen builds up from thick, twisty noodles to wok-fried chashu pork and wood-ear mushrooms, bean sprouts and red miso paste, all in that long-simmered pork-bone broth, slicked with a skein of fiery chili oil. To my mind, it's one of the best bowls in town.
The other varieties – Isshin's main soup flavourings are salt-based shio, soy-based shoyu and white miso with either black or white sesame seeds – are very good. Or if you're into Japanese curry, there's a tsukemen dipping noodle special right now that comes with a bowl of cheese-and-onion-topped curry. It's an excellent way to warm into 2016.
Descendant Detroit Style Pizza
- Atmosphere: A friendly, 22-seat pizza parlour, with communal tables, artfully graffitied walls and a booming take-out trade.
- Wine and drinks: Good craft beer, cane-sugar-based sodas, chocolate milk and tea.
- Best bets: The “homenaje” is excellent if you like spice, the double pep is superb and the soppressata marmalade is sweet and meaty. Watch for the specials too.
- Prices: Smalls from $12 to $17 (they’re big enough for one or two people); larges from $20 to $29.
- Atmosphere: An authentically rough and ready ramen-ya, with soup-stained counters and friendly but harried staff. Avoid the tables near the rear kitchen entrance if you can.
- Wine and drinks: Asahi draft and dark lager.
- Best bets: The spicy red miso is the go-to here, though I didn’t try a single less-than-excellent bowl.
- Prices: Ramen costs between $9 and $15, plus $1.70 if you want extra noodles. Appetizers, $3 to $5.