I won’t argue. There’s no way a slice from Pizza Pizza tastes as good as the slice from your favourite Italian joint. I won’t pretend it’s better than a classy pie laden with gourmet toppings. Heck, I wouldn’t bet on my favourite slice winning any taste test against any other slice anywhere, but damned if I don’t love it. It’s not the taste that brings me back anyway—it’s the feeling. Growing up and going out in North York (on the north edge of Toronto, a 45-minute bus and subway ride into downtown), Pizza Pizza is what passes for soul food. It’s also the place I look to for an embodiment of the Canadian dream.
Pizza Pizza is undoubtedly Toronto’s most successful pizza chain. With over 300 locations, an easy-to-remember phone number, and a “40 minutes or free” guarantee, you can’t beat it for convenience. But good lord, they make a mediocre pie. The dough is usually undercooked and dry from the stingy application of sauce. The cheese is waxy and lacks the sweet greasy taste of butterfat. Should you, by chance, find the taste lacking, you can augment your pizza with one of four “dipping sauces”. I’m a sucker for the “Creamy Garlic” (don’t worry, it doesn’t taste like garlic), but there’s something to be said for “Italian Marinara” (isn’t all Marinara sauce Italian?) and “Cheddar Jalapeno” (find evidence of either ingredient and win a prize). The less said about the “Creamy Horseradish” dip, the better. So, if it’s not the taste I love, what is it?
Examining my own background, a love of Pizza Pizza perhaps seems out of place. My paternal grandmother, who made her own pasta until her final years, is an old-country Nonna through and through. One look in her cantina, with its row upon row of tomato sauce, balls of cheese, and cured pig parts hanging from the walls, and you’ll find plenty of proof. She makes a fine traditional “Peets”. My mother is an equally skilled, although more sophisticated, cook. She’d be more likely to choose capers or gruyere cheese as toppings. But every so often, on those nights when she was too tired to cook, we ordered in. More often than not, the choice was Pizza Pizza.
Taking a large, appreciative bite of bland consistency and ubiquitous uniformity, one writer challenges refined taste to prove an old adage right and discover a slice of identity.
Why? Poetry, that’s why. Well, rhyming anyway. 967-11-11. Say it out loud. Say it out loud again. Now it’s in there forever. There’s something so perfect about that number. Pizza Pizza knows it, too. The phone number gets a paragraph in the history section of the company’s website. Describing the number’s origin, the website explains how “we considered this number unforgettable because the ‘7’ rhymed with the ‘11’”. The seven rhymed with the 11. Perfectly simple.
Once I got old enough to make more of my own food choices, Pizza Pizza found its way down my eager throat more with even more regularity. While the food carried with it powerful memories of childhood pleasure, the choice to eat it now had as much to do with ubiquity as anything else. Simply put, I could get to a Pizza Pizza within 15 minutes no matter where I was. There are a lot of reasons for that. Coincidence is not one of them. Like McDonald’s or Starbucks, Pizza Pizza wins by simply being there. I know what it’s going to taste like, and I know I’ll be able to find one. So I eat it.
May I digress for a moment? Let me share a story:
Back in high school, at the traditional after-prom party, I got high. As was—and still is—the case, after elevation I wanted to get me some pizza. I knew that Pizza Pizza could be counted on to deliver me a hot pie in 40 minutes or it’d be free. More importantly, I could remember the number. I ordered and waited. I waited some more. I took a short walk. I got back and waited still. What was going on?! I was hungry and this was Pizza Pizza. Too much time had elapsed. I must have missed the delivery man when I went for a walk. How could I have been so stupid?! I called back, figuring I’d reorder. I explained to the order-taker what had happened, that I had stepped out and must have missed the delivery. The order-taker asked for my name. I heard her peck at the keyboard and then pause to read the info. She told me 12 minutes had passed since I first ordered. I thanked her and hung up. The pizza came soon after. It tasted amazing. Honest. Punctual. Pizza Pizza.
Aside from being such a part of my own personality, Pizza Pizza is in many ways a microcosm of Canadian society. Canada’s culture is a low-key one. Unlike the more vibrant cultures, you won’t stumble across a “Little Canada” or “Canada Town” anywhere else. There are no easily recognizable traits that define us. Canadians lack the shared heritage and patriotism (whether adopted willingly or not) that create clearly distinct cultures. If you don’t mind me saying, being polite is perhaps the only requirement of “Canadianness”. Something about Pizza Pizza’s democratic blandness fits perfectly in a place where pretty much anyone can do alright, as long as they do it with no muss or fuss.
It only costs $30,000 Canadian dollars to become a Pizza Pizza franchisee—less than half of what it costs to get a license to drive a cab. An immigrant can come to Canada, save some cash, and start serving cheap Italian food to the masses. What says “Canada” better than a financially and culturally conservative mash-up?
How’s this for a little known fact (I stole it from the Pizza Pizza website): At one point, the Pizza Pizza phone number became so well known in Toronto that even customs immigration agents used it as a “True Torontonian” test. If the person could recite the Pizza Pizza phone number to the customs agent, then that individual must truly be from Toronto. Now that’s a Canadian security test. No need to pledge allegiance to any gods, kings, or queens. Just tell us the number of the pizza place.
It’s easy to see that food is a powerful tool for defining cultures on both an individual and social basis. Are you the steak and potatoes type or more of a raw foodist? Baba Ghanouj and tabbouleh or Chilean Sea Bass with a mango chutney? Coq au Vin or Pasta Fagioli? Your food choices say a lot about who you are. I’m proud to admit I choose Pizza Pizza.
Yeah, I know it’s not great. But I can’t help loving the pizza that’s been there for the laughs and sighs, as my partner in melancholy, the capper to so many of my late nights, the special meal of my youth and into my dotage. As the Canadian-born son of a now divorced big-town American Jew and small-town Italian Catholic, there are few things that give me more pleasure than calling that number, waiting a perfectly reasonable amount of time, thanking the thickly accented delivery man, and sinking my teeth into a gummy, insipid slice. You are what you eat. Damn right.