The build-your-own (BYO) pizza concept arrived in Edmonton about a year ago, though it’s been around in the United States for a few years already. It’s essentially the pizza version of Subway: Diners can personalize their pizzas with various toppings and then watch as they are cooked in a couple of minutes.
Urbano Pizza Co. was the first to bring this concept to town. Founded by Christian Mena and Lino Oliveira of Sabor Restaurant and Bodega Tapas and Wine Bar, Urbano’s first location (on the Boardwalk downtown) opened in June 2015 and was soon followed by a second on Whyte Avenue. They are in the process of opening two more, one on 124th Street and another at an as-yet undisclosed location.
Love Pizza opened in January this year and is also locally owned, by Gavin Fedorak and Braede Harris. Blaze Pizza, a major American chain, opened its first Edmonton location in April; it will be launching a second location here soon.
Clearly, the Edmonton market was ready to welcome pizza in the fast-casual sphere. With the trend only just beginning, the city’s pizza landscape was perched on the edge of a significant shift.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we see at least two or three of the large brands from the U.S. entering our market within the next 12 to 16 months,” Fedorak says. “That’s why we based what we’re doing around trying to differentiate ourselves on the quality of the product, the providers we use and the uniqueness of what we’re doing, both with our pizza but also with our restaurant and community engagement.”
Similarly, Urbano has built a loyal following of regulars by offering a chef-driven menu and made-in-house ingredients. But Mena also notes that one aspect can trump all others – location. “I think a lot of it has to do with convenience,” he says. “If the pizza place is next door to you, it doesn’t matter which pizza place it is, you’re going to go to that one.”
Those after the city’s best pizza aren’t placing all their hopes on this new concept, however.
Mike Maione, a culinary instructor at NAIT, was disappointed with the quality of the product when he tried build-your-own pizza last year with a group of fellow instructors. “I was looking at possibly purchasing one of those ovens for our cafeteria line here, but after I saw the quality of the pizza that came out of it, I was not happy,” he says. “The dough was quite dry … it was dense – something like you would purchase at the grocery store.”
Maione thinks that the fast-cook ovens used to make these pizzas aren’t ideal and that places will need to experiment with different dough recipes to find the best combination. But he also acknowledges that the trend is here to stay.
“The more of these establishments that come out, the better it is for the establishments that are actually doing it right,” Maione says. “It opens people’s eyes to what it should really be like.”
Local food blogger Phil Wilson, who taste-tested over a dozen different pizza places last year, believes that you can get a pretty good pizza at a BYO joint – but not a great one.
“In the interest of focusing on speed, some other aspect has to suffer at least a little bit, and that is quality of the dough,” he says. Wilson also cautions against falling into the buffet-table mentality of adding too many toppings, which prevents the pizza from cooking properly.
To counter this, Love Pizza restricts the amount of toppings to four, though diners can add as many “finishes” as they like after the pizza has been cooked. Urbano used to price its pizzas differently based on the number of toppings, but simplified to a flat rate after realizing most customers have learned to stick to a handful of toppings.
Like it or not, build-your-own pizza has carved a permanent place in the city already. Everyone loves pizza, after all.
This article appears in the October 2016 issue of Avenue Edmonton. Subscribe here.