There are times you need pizza and that’s all there is to it.
If that craving tends toward generic dough-circles covered with lap-staining sludge and a rubbery roof of something claiming to be cheese, there’s no shortage of places to scratch that itch. If you want better stuff (hand-made dough, thoughtful toppings, fired in a properly hot oven), and you want it washed down with craft beer, Tennessy Willems fits the bill nicely.
The Hintonburg pizza restaurant opened to critical praise – including from my pen – in 2010. It’s a cosy, woody space, with wintry twinkle lights adding some charm. There’s a small bar as you enter, and a kitchen behind it where the pizza oven and its minder are visible. One wall is an all retractable window. Others are covered with a rotating collection of local art and with shelves selling preserves, including the house pizza sauce. The lighting is soft – rotten for photographing dinner, but nice for everything else.
I have been back since I first wrote about Tennessy Willems (without my pen), mostly to satisfy a craving for the better stuff. For a time, perhaps a year or so ago, I thought the place went through a wobbly patch. Why the decline? I can’t say. Perhaps the pizza chef moved on. Perhaps the new guy wasn’t managing the fire as well or crafting the dough or topping the pies as thoughtfully, and the service wasn’t the warm, inviting sort I remembered from its early days.
However a few pre-Christmas visits in late December tell me that Tennessy Willems is back on form — at least in the food department: our pizzas were class acts and all the bits around them were good too.
If I have lingering issues, they are with the service. The room is dominated by an aggressively-casual style I don’t much enjoy. Or at least I wasn’t in the mood for. My sons, some of whom were with me, eyes rolling as I cluck-clucked, have no issue with it. But I don’t want to be waved to my (reserved) table from behind a counter and I don’t think “OK… whatchahavin’?” is order taking. Yes, even in a pizzeria.
Right, ’nuff said. We are here to eat pizza and there’s no doubt Tennessy Willems has a way with those pies. It starts with the dough, and what the wood oven does to it. Our pizzas arrived puffy and burbled, crisp and soft, dotted with black char and tasting of summer campfire. The tomato sauce is simple goodness, the cheese blend is in fine balance, and the toppings tend toward the modern, though still within the sensible range — eclectic offerings like wild boar, duck confit, and red wine simmered rabbit.
You will want to pay attention to the specials on the blackboard, where seasonal pizzas are on offer, bolstering the regular list.
From the regular list, we enjoyed most the Wild Boar pizza with apple, old cheddar, and a drizzle of sage oil. Excellent too, The Chorizo, with truly-caramelized onions spread in thick tangles across the base, house-made sausage, and dobs of goat cheese. From the selection of non-tomato based, the star is The Bianco, with sweet bites of soft pear and chewy speck, blobs of gentle fior di latte, and sharp nobs of gorgonzola. A lick of the house chilli oil lifts the impact of all pizzas.
One night we share the charcuterie board, on which the star is the pork terrine. There is a warm beet salad that features over-cooked beets, but is otherwise fine, and a solid Caesar with lots of chewy good bacon, a lemony lift, and no skimping on sharp cheese. The House salad features arugula and a mix of well-roasted mushrooms, united in a sweet sherry vinaigrette. Salad portions are plenty big enough, so sharing is the way to go if you plan on continuing.
The lemon tart remains the way to end, though the dark brownie with vanilla ice cream and strawberry sauce is still on my mind.
Pizza $12 to $20
Open Monday to Saturday, lunch through dinner; Sunday from 4 p.m. for dinner only
1082 Wellington Street West, 613-722-0000