I just want to say, wow! Many thanks to our readers for the feedback about your favourite purveyors of thin crust pizza. It seems many of you have the same favourite, and the pizzeria just happens to be right around the corner from my house. It also happens to be one we’ve been visiting since it opened months ago.
There are quite a number of Italian eateries in the West Wellington Village (Cafe Ventuno, Parma Ravioli, Bella’s, Caffe Mio), but none in Hintonburg. And so, after many delays, some renovation related and others licensing related, Tennessy Willems opened in late 2010. Since its opening, Don and I have eaten there three times. We visited the first time with the Hintonburg Supper Club, celebrating the final days of the year.
[Yes, we are aware Burnt Butter will open in the coming month. Its location was still Pnomh Penh when Tenessy Willems opened.]
First Visit: December 2010
After trudging through the snow to get there, Tennessy Willems (named after the owners’ children) proved warm and welcoming with its white walls, dark-coloured hard wood floors, small stained wood tables, wood bar, newly hung paintings (local artists), and festive decorations. Despite it being a Tuesday night (a traditionally slow night among restaurants), Tenessy Willems was packed, both with members of the supper club and families from the surrounding neighbourhood.
Famished, we sped through menu and settled on three pizzas: a Margherita for me, an Elmdale for my sister (on her inaugural dinner with the supper club), and a Helen’s for Don.
My margherita ($10): fire-roasted tomato sauce, fiore de latte mozzarella and basil. The margherita is a favourite I usually order when I crave thin crust. Its simplicity appeals to me.
Looking for something meaty with a kick, Jes chose the Elmdale pizza ($14): fire-roasted tomato sauce, spicy Italian salami, mushrooms, roasted red peppers, and fiore di latte mozzarella. The Elmdale happens to be the name of the tavern next door. One of the last taverns in Ottawa, the Elmdale is a popular venue for local music.
As Tennessy Willems resides in the building that used to house Helen’s Cuisine, Don decided to try the Helen’s pizza ($15): baby spinach, fresh parmesan, C’est Bon goat cheese, oven roasted pine-nuts, and finished with fresh lemon.
Although the pizzas were freshly baked with quality ingredients, the bottoms were rather charred from their time in the new wood fired ovens (ovens designed to cook pizzas in a handful of minutes). The top of my margherita was likewise charred. As we ate, we realized so much flour had been employed to roll out the dough, much had accompanied the pizza from work surface to oven and finally to plate. There was quite the layer under our pizzas.
Dessert was also interesting ($7 each).
Both were tasty. Though, presentation was somewhat lacking.
Opened less than a month, it was obvious Tennessy Willems was still a work in progress, but it showed great promise. It left a good impression. Don and I decided we would return later in the new year.
Second Visit: February 2011
At the end of the month, Don and I braved the cold elements once more to satisfy our thin crust pizza cravings. We were curious to see whether the food had changed since our first visit.
I decided to order the Margherita again (new price: $12), while Don tried the Duck Confit pizza ($18).
The margherita was much better this time, but I still found the edges too singed for my liking. The duck confit pizza was savoury excess, greasy, and delicious. But, Don found it a tad salty. The aroma from both pizzas, especially the truffle oil from Don’s, was tantalizing.
Once again, for dessert, I ordered the lemon tart ($7). I really enjoy lemony desserts and, after seeing improvements all evening, I was looking forward to seeing whether tart had changed.
It was quite delicious – a buttery tender crust, a tart custard (runny but not loose), specks of vanilla bean, a dusting of icing sugar, and slices of vanilla poached pear. What a difference eight weeks made!
Third Visit: July 2011
Don and I made our third visit nearly two weeks ago. Tennessy Willems has really come into its own. The restaurant is buzzing every night. There are always patrons in for lunch, despite the location having no air conditioning. Feeling I was in need of a carb load two days before the Hintonburg 5km Run, Don thought pizza would be a good choice. Since he was treating me, I wasn’t going to complain!
Arriving close to 9pm, the restaurant was near capacity, but there were a few seats at the bar. Never one to turn down the chance at sitting at the bar, we chatted with the friendly staff about the regular menu, specials, and sourcing their ingredients locally.
I ordered my usual, the margherita, while Don opted for the pizza special ($18).
While we waited patiently for dinner, Don tried to capture the fast pace in the kitchen with his phone.
During our chat, we learned that the dough is proofed cold for a minimum of four hours, aiming for overnight proofing when possible. Longer proofing develops flavour, especially necessary when the dough is destined to be thin crust. We also found out that one of their first pizzailolos (pizza makers) had previously worked at Toronto’s famed Pizzeria Libretto. But, that is where the connection ends. The thin crust pizzerias are not affiliated in any way.
Despite the crowd, our wait was fairly short and, when our orders arrived, they looked and smelled incredible.
How was it? Well, let me tell you, it tasted as good as it looked. The crust was smoky, thin, crispy, with a puffy edge due to careful proofing and the very hot wood-fired brick oven. The combination of darkly sweet sundried tomato, nutty walnut pesto, earthy squash, roasted cherry tomatoes, fresh green zucchini, salty brie, and chewy melted cheese curds was fun to eat.
Although it looked rather plain next to Don’s choice, my pizza tasted just as good:
In fact, it was the best margherita I have tasted to date. No charred edges this time, the roasted tomato sauce was sweet (think concentrated tomatoes) and delicious with a generous topping of fresh whole basil leaves (added right after the pizza came out of the oven) and wonderful blobs of cheesy fresh mozzarella goodness.
Feeling stuffed, Don and I decided to skip dessert and left feeling satisfied and happy. We’ll be back soon!
Total: $38.42 (two pizzas and two sodas, plus taxes)
1082 Wellington St. West
(Eat-in, take out available, $5 Fresh Handmade Sourdough breads to go)