MORRIS EAST - A Neighbourhood pizza place off Larry Uteck Boulevard
Ha! So, when you look up the meaning of “lumbersexual” on the web, a Wikipedia page pops up with this:
Lumbersexual is a portmanteau, derived from lumberjack and sexual, coined in 2014 describing a man who has adopted a retro fashion style resembling a traditional lumberjack particularly with a beard, plaid shirt, and scruffy hair. Denver Nicks described the trend as perhaps an attempt to “reclaim masculinity”.
Now, scratch that visual and imagine the Morris East pizza, minus the facial hair, of course. Smoked bacon, maple-brushed sausage, caramelized onions, smoked applewood cheddar, fried rosemary, maple syrup drizzle . . . are you drooling yet? Are you imagining yourself in the great outdoors with a roaring fire, a rustic and smoky pizza, and all that sticky and sweet caramelized meat? I digress. Clearly, I’m hungry.
Alas, The Lumbersexual is actually no longer the name of this famous Morris East pizza. It’s simply called The Lumberjack now, but I’m here to let you know that nothing has been diminished with the mildly tidied up name change. And if you also found yourself confused watching a trendy downtown neighbourhood pizza joint open a second location in Bedford West . . . again, nothing to worry about here.
For as long as she can remember, Jennie Dobbs has loved pizza. She laughs citing one of her earliest childhood memories of putting together pizzas with Kraft Pizza Kits. Remember those crazy little no-frills packets of dough, sauce, cheese and spices? Jennie’s interest in cooking was spurned early on when she was regularly expected to do dinner prep along with her sister for their full-time working mother. An obsession with the newly minted Canadian Living cookbook at the time had her experimenting with things like deviled eggs, much to her mother’s surprise. Imagine coming home to a tray of these made by an eight-year-old after a long day at work.
It may surprise you that this exuberant and now serial entrepreneur never directly planned on this culinary career path. After university, Jennie found herself working in the finance sector in the U.K. for over seven years. She was always inextricably linked to food; even a high-end French bank that she worked for had its own private chef who often prepared five-course French meals for their exclusive clients. She was also surrounded by a lively group of girlfriends in central Europe, making it easy for them to travel for food and for her to bank major sources of inspiration, like a 25-course epic meal in Italy, or eating “fast food” — prawns in the shell and deep-fried sardines — in Spain. She began to grasp the idea that food was as much about place and experience as it was about the actual food.
Step ahead to just eight years ago, when Jennie moved home to Halifax and her obsession with pizza was only matched by her enthusiasm to finally start her own business. And thus she opened Morris East, a wood-fired pizzeria, one of the only ones in the city at the time. The restaurant has always been a busy neighbourhood eatery with a very committed fan base. In fact, it was one of the regulars that campaigned to secure a spot for the restaurant on John Catucci’s popular Food Network show You Gotta Eat Here. The season three opener in April 2014 kicked off with Morris East’s wood-fired breakfast pizza.
Hold up! Let’s take a second to consider how perfect a breakfast pizza can be, especially this one — tomato sauce, smoked cheddar, spinach, Portobello mushroom, smoked bacon, tomato and micro greens, all topped with a sunny egg. That hangover fixed by all the smoke and all that runny egg.
Jennie admits that she was lucky to have the kind of support she did when she first opened. Many mentors came together — from Ontario to San Francisco to Halifax — to download their love of pizza to her. This spirit of mentorship and entrepreneurship appears to be a big part of her makeup now, as she’s been nominated three times for the RBC Canadian Woman Entrepreneur Award in 2010, 2011 and 2012, and is a 2012 finalist for the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award. To this day, family friend Jane Wright (formerly of Jane’s on the Common) remains a mentor, and by the looks of it Jennie has inherited some of these skills, as she appears to have inspired her own former employees to open their own successful culinary businesses, like Dan Vorstermans of Field Guide and Jill Johnsrude of Halifax Press.
I have to admit that driving out Highway 102 and taking the Larry Uteck exit, where there’s a density of new apartments and condos, didn’t conjure up the immediate idea and look of a true neighbourhood to me, but Jennie, a Bedford native, disagrees. On any given night, you can find the dining room full of regulars, and her team continues to cultivate and foster relationships with these customers. Heck, they’re even winning awards for it. Manager Amber MacLean, for example, won the 2013 Server of the Year award from Taste of Nova Scotia. Another team standout is Wine and Beverage Director Katrina Roberts, who is responsible for the elevated cocktail program. Let’s face it: cocktail culture goes well with the whole pizza experience. Many of the exotic pizza toppings, such as infused honeys and fresh herbs like basil and rosemary, actually lend themselves well to cocktails. Jennie affirms that all of her staff had the option to move to this location, and she had every intention of making it another neighbourhood restaurant.
So, can we talk a little bit about that lumbersexual again? This pizza is so delicious it secured them a spot to compete this past April at the International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas in the Non-Traditional Category - International (a blind tasting!). After much consideration, though, they ended up swapping it out it for a long-time customer favourite, the Pear Pizza. A seriously amped up, hyper-Nova Scotian version featuring Blomidon Baco Noir poached pears, maple tarragon aioli, Urban Blue cheese from Blue Harbour Cheese, prosciutto from Ratinaud Charcuterie, roasted shallots and micro greens. The team, led by Chef Tim Andresen, took bronze. Jennie still doesn’t know why they didn’t do this sooner, as it was such an overwhelmingly positive experience (the event draws 3,000 exhibitors and 7,000 attendees over the course of a couple of days). She was thrilled to discover that people are making great pizza from Milwaukee to Hawaii; pizzerias are one of the last true independent small businesses out there.
It’s hard to believe that this new location has already been open about two years. The space is bright, with the sun pouring in through floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides, but yet it’s somehow cozy, with dark floors and banquettes to tuck into. Unlike its sister location on Morris Street, there is room here. The pizza oven pops out in front of a signature wall of red tile, and the newly-minted master pizza maker, Nate Morris, throws pizza dough into the air behind the counter.
The size of the space has allowed them to expand beyond just pizzas. They also now make Italian-inspired main courses using local and seasonal ingredients — from salads and burgers, to gnocchi and a Milanese chicken. The menu gets two major overhauls a year, and both locations highlight a roster of about a dozen pizzas along with a daily pizza feature. Not to mention that signature chili oil and the wonderful uncooked tomato sauce that really performs in a wood-fired oven with Roma tomatoes, fresh basil and oregano.
Things have started to normalize with the addition of Chef Ashley Davis just six months ago. A Red Seal Chef who came home via long-term gigs in Ottawa, Nantucket and beyond, she’s thrown herself into learning the art of pizza-making after working for a long time in the fine dining world. It’s safe to say she’s enthralled working out the complexities of live yeast and dough; trying to use the ovens for as much as possible; and smoking, grilling and caramelizing anything from pineapple and rhubarb to onions to bacon. She wants to understand how to get the best product out of the oven all the time. She’s worked in a lot of restaurants and thinks the crew at Morris East is among the best, showing up every day with smiles on their faces regardless of what’s happening in their personal lives. She, too, was driven into the culinary world and early as a result of her mother being a shake-and-bake queen; she grew up fearing she might never enjoy good food.
Let’s wrap this up with a tasty little dessert, a wood-fire roasted s’more. Crafted with house-made marshmallow and toasted in the oven by fire with chocolate ganache and graham cracker cookie, it’s one of their most popular sweets. So popular that it caused an uproar when it was temporarily retired from the menu.
Jennie and her crew appear to be presenting an honest, sincere and inexpensive dining experience in an unlikely location. Good food can be anywhere, suburbs or downtown, and when selection is limited there’s obviously more of a demand for this kind of thing. In the meantime, they’ll be perfecting the art of pizza-making, striving to make it better every day. And be sure to watch out for Maximus — the newest addition to the Morris East team and the cutest little mobile pizza oven there ever was.