Food & Drink, Reviews

All I have is a twenty: The Pizza Oven

Perhaps because I have some family ties to the restaurant business and know how financially precarious it is, or perhaps because I’m a foodie who values taste over style, but I love these weird, out of the way places. It’s kind of like ecology. Every crack in the sidewalk, life takes root, plants find their tiny patch of soil and sunshine. Small business does that, too, finding economic niches in the oddest spots. Perhaps no species is more versatile than the pizza delivery place.

A full-sized restaurant might be tens of thousands of square feet in space, but I’ve seen pizza places under a hundred. All you need is an oven,  a small cooler, and some counter space. You can fit most of that in a walk-in closet if you have to. And pizza has long been the king of delivery food. By and large, people pick up their fried chicken, their hamburgers, and their subs. But pizza is usually delivered, and at all hours of the night. So what does it matter where you are?

There are two pizza places I want to talk about, and only one of them has a happy ending. Years ago, Flame Pizza served the North Kildonan area from its location at the corner of Henderson and Foxgrove, only a stone’s throw from the North Perimeter bridge. The pizza was unique, with a sweet but well-balanced sauce and a totally solid dough recipe to go along with it. Sadly, the family-run business closed its doors over a decade ago after a premature death threw them into disarray.

Out in East Transcona, literally right next to the East Perimeter Highway though not actually connected to it, a new place opened up in 2011. It could be found on the Transport Road, a loop off of Redonda close to Gunn Road which connects the Perimeter and Plessis. If you know the area I’m talking about, you’ll find it hard to believe there was ever a restaurant there. It’s a collection of warehouses, truck lots, and the like. It would be the middle of nowhere if there weren’t a sizable residential area two-minutes away.

This new place was called Summer’s Pizza and was perfectly poised to service suburban East Transcona. Try to place an order for pick-up and you’d have a hard time getting there. It’s nestled well back of a warehouse lot, behind several other buildings, and there are no signs. But pizza was just a phone call away. It’s pretty out of the box. Most restaurants, even delivery and take-out places, look for some visibility, decent foot and vehicle traffic, and such like. But pizza places really just need a phone number, don’t they? Physical location has to be convenient for the driver but not the customers. Alas, their pizza was good but they just couldn’t build up their clientele fast enough. Summer’s shut down last Christmas.

Meanwhile, back in North Kildonan, the word-of-mouth advertising Summer’s couldn’t get quite enough of was building to a crescendo for another weirdly-placed pizza spot. Called simply The Pizza Oven, this take-out and delivery place started operating a couple summers ago out of the Nor Villa Hotel on Henderson. Judging by the street address alone, it should be fairly visible, but this too is a place you would never find unless you were looking for it. Situated in the basement of the Villa, which already has its own main floor restaurant, and with little to no exterior signage, how was this new place going to get any traction?

But whispers were going around: “It’s Flame! Flame is back!” One taste confirms it; their sauce is, after all, one of a kind. It’s Flame alright. But why and how?

I heard the rumours about this Phoenix-like re-emergence last summer. It was imparted to me like a furtive confession by a chance meeting with someone I hadn’t seen in years (it all has the feel of a James Bond novel now — “in the basement of the Nor Villa Hotel, look for a man in a trenchcoat. . . .”). Some later digging confirmed that The Pizza Oven, armed with equipment and recipes purchased from Flame’s former owners, had been operating under-the-radar for a couple of years already, but it’s last year that the word really started getting out. Soon the return of this much-missed pizza had become North Kildonan’s worst-kept restaurant secret.

Easily earning a spot in my Winnipeg pizza top three, this is as it should be. The nostalgia is icing on the cake, but even a newbie can see this is a good quality pizza and a good value. A late night movie and a call to these guys . . . there are worse ways to spend a Friday night.



Joel Boyce is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer. Links to his writing can be found at his homepage.