Montreal’s go-to spot for New York-style pizza

The team behind Impasto, Gema and Chez Tousignant are serving up excellent non-Neapolitan pies in Villeray.

Vesta is the Roman goddess of hearth and home whose temple could only be accessed by the Vestal priestesses who tended to the sacred flame within. Vesta is also the new pizza place from Michele Forgione and Stefano Faita (of Impasto, Gema and Chez Tousignant) and it is an homage to the goddess in the form of a warm and welcoming restaurant that reflects the goddess’s dominion over the home and, more importantly, a fire within an oven dutifully tended to by cooks who nourish the flame by harnessing its heat to cook great pizza. 

Vesta’s opening at the end of July was highly anticipated and for good reason. In the last five years the name of the game when it comes to pizza was Neapolitan, but few (aside from by-the-slice joint Adamo and, recently, Pizza Bouquet) was carrying the torch of good quality, elevated New-York-style pizza. Vesta is the first sit-down pizza place in town that’s actually serving a decent New York pie. Fans of Chez Tousignant won’t be surprised to hear that Forgione and Faita’s take on this style of pizza is as methodical and successful as their take on the casse-croûte classics. 

The space itself is vibrant but dialled-in, exposed globe sconces on a white wood-panelled wall, with a matte turquoise ceiling. I will say that despite the good design, I find it to be a bit of a paint by numbers look, with all the 2019 tropes and elements combined in an aesthetically successful way — take away the pizza and this could be any restaurant by nearly anyone. For me it lacks the kind of unique identity that the design of Gema and Impasto have.

As for food, it’s pizza-parlour classics: a few salads including a no-nonsense Caprese and a mixed green salad known as the Vesta, meatballs in tomato sauce, mozzarella sticks, garlic knots and a fritto misto. There are two kinds of pasta: spaghetti with meatballs and penne in cream with pistachio. But let’s face it, these are all side notes, because the pizza is what everyone is here for. It’s a Saturday night, and we’re lucky to get a table. The restaurant has been nearly booked solid since it opened, and at every table there are people joyfully inhaling piping hot slices of ’za. 

The service here is decent, if a bit frantic, although a bit of franticness can be forgiven since the restaurant is managing a full house, plus take-out, and our waiter did manage to find time to give us a reasonably thorough run-down of the menu. His recommendation for dinner for two hungry people was to order three appetizers and to share a pizza, but we ordered more. As for drinks, there was a really decent selection of wines by the glass — I counted over a dozen choices, which is smart for a casual spot like Vesta. The wine list is natural-focused and with a strong Italian bias making room for a few cuvées from local producer Pinard et Filles. As for cocktails, there are only a few but you’ll find something for every taste. I myself had a Negroni that was spot-on.

In one fell swoop, the entrées arrive: two generous meatballs bathed in tomato sauce and liberally topped with parm, a Caprese salad made up of thick slices of beautifully ripe tomatoes with equally thick slices of mozzarella layered between, a golden fritto misto with accompanying lemon and marinara sauce and finally a simple but bountiful mound of greens. The meatballs arrived very hot and let out wisps of steam as our forks and knives carved into them. Seemingly half made of cheese, these meatballs were as decadent as they were tender, which is to say very. The bright acidity of the tomato sauce was needed to balance the richness of the meatballs, but I suspect they married so perfectly because instead of being baked, these meatballs were likely poached in the sauce they were served in — just a hunch.

The Caprese salad was excellent, although at this time of year it’s hard to mess up. The tomatoes were sweet and tangy, the mozzarella was creamy and salty — add a little salt, a little oil and a few basil leaves and it’s no wonder this is such an enduring summer salad. The Vesta salad, although very simple as well, was a true testament to the power of a good salad dressing, grabbing onto the greens and seasoning them perfectly without weighing the salad down.

The least successful dish to me was the fritto misto, which only missed because the batter on the seafood started to sag within a few minutes of the plate hitting the table. Maybe some rice flour and cornstarch in the mix could produce a longer-lasting crunch? Despite the lack of crispness, the seafood was cooked perfectly, and my god, that marinara sauce with bits of cheese mixed in an ever so slight bit of heat was delicious. 

As for pizza, we ordered a classic pepperoni pizza and a white pizza known as the Benevento, with bacon, sausage and caramelized onions. The two main differences between Neapolitan pizza and North American pizza are the dough and the type of heat used to cook it. In Neapolitan pizza, the dough is made up of 00 flour (often used in pasta), salt and water, and it’s baked in a wood-fired oven at very high temperatures, whereas North American pizza is generally made of a high-gluten flour, with the addition of oil and often a touch of sugar, baked in either coal (very rare) or electric conveyor or convection ovens, which cook very evenly but at a lower temperature, producing a very crisp crust.

In terms of dough, Vesta’s pizzas don’t disappoint — in fact, they are exquisite. The crust is perfectly crispy and chewy from good gluten development and certainly will work well for take-out and delivery. The pepperoni pizza, nearly cartoonish in appearance, was topped with the wonderful tomato sauce we tasted at various points during the meal, and the Benevento was bold in flavour, combining richness and acidity from the caramelized onions (which I suspect were finished with a light touch of red wine vinegar) with smokey bacon and delicately spiced crumbled sausage — it worked perfectly. Suffice to say, we did not finish both pizzas, but Vesta does take-out so they packed up our leftover slices in a beautifully designed pizza box emblazoned with the image of the goddess herself to take home, or to share with friends over beers in the park. 

There’s a really lovely atmosphere to Vesta. The busy room is full of people really enjoying being out for dinner. I think the casual nature of this restaurant allows people to disconnect from what can otherwise be an attention-demanding event. Dining is so often dominated by excessive plating, pseudo-intellectual cooking and managing of expectations versus reality. At Vesta, the menu is simple, and if I didn’t know who was behind it I’d even say it was surprisingly good — but it’s no surprise because this is a team that really understands why we love low-brow classics, and in their kitchen the classics are perfected. Vesta is making some of the best pizza in town, and may very well be my new take-out spot. Maybe it should be yours, too. ■


206 Jarry E.