by Pasquale Casullo
The city’s unique taste of home
Just as every regione in Italy has its own distinct dialect—changing vastly from town to town—nearly every big city in North America has its own signature take on pizza. New York City has floppy, kite-size dollar-slices while Chicago is known for its deep-dish pie. And Montreal? It’s home to slab pizza, a hearty slice that makes every Montreal-Italian think of home.While Neapolitan-style pie has enjoyed a long moment in the spotlight—for the past 10 years—slab pizza seems eternal. “It reminds me of family and my youth and delicious meals around the dinner table,” says Chris DiRaddo, a Montreal writer. “Kind of like a hug from the inside.”
When he was a child, DiRaddo and his father would occasionally go to Boulangerie & Pâtisserie Bruno & Frères (Bruno Brothers), in LaSalle, to pick up a whole slab pizza for a family meal. “Just going into the bakery, smelling the flour, seeing the brown butcher’s paper…it makes me wonder why I ever eat anything but Italian food.”
Neither a copy of what came from Italy, nor an interpretation, brick-red slab pizza is a heritage-inspired pizza that evolved with its surroundings.
Montreal’s water is said to have a distinctive effect on the dough, as it does with bagels, another city specialty. A slab is rectangular with a medium-to-thick golden crust and an airy, fluffy interior. Up top, it’s covered with sweet-to-savoury tomato sauce, which helps it stay moist, yet never soggy.
Josie Alati, owner of Alati Bakery, leaves that glorious step for last. “Cheese goes on top because it will burn if it goes under the toppings,” she says. Quite thick, the entire slab requires a longer cooking time than a standard, thinner pizza. 425ºC-450ºC, for about 25-minutes. Alati says her bakery only makes slab in the morning, providing lunch customers with a filling treat if they get there early, before it runs out.
The slab came into prominence in Montreal, in the 1950s to the 1960s, via immigrants who brought over the traditional recipe. Originating primarily in southern Italy—Sicilia, Calabria, Puglia—it was even more decked out back home where it was sometimes topped with herbs, onions, tomatoes, anchovies, and caciocavallo and toma cheese. The slab is akin to sfincione, a common-variety pizza topped with poor-man’s Parmesan (breadcrumbs) that originally came from Palermo, although there are many other variations in other regions.
Novello Pantoni of Molisana Bakery continues the tradition by paying special attention to his dough: volume as well as proportion is key. “Here we make it grow naturally, with proofers,” he says. “It makes it more appetizing and gives it more flavour.”
And the proof is in the popularity of his slab pizza, which he says is a hit with customers who will commonly buy it in handfuls to bring to their country homes, or even across the border to family in Florida.
Taking great pride and satisfaction in making slab pizza, bakeries across Montreal are ensuring that with each bite you feel as though you’re getting a good slice of home—wherever that may be.