Nova Scotia Food Profiles: Cape Breton Pizza Burgers
If there is one food that screams “Cape Breton” it would be the pizza burger (if not Cape Breton Pizza). It is to Cape Breton what the Cheese Steak is to Philadelphia, what foldable pizza and dirty water dogs are to New York: the most unglamourous, albeit beloved, of comfort foods. It is not a hamburger dressed like a pizza. It is not a pizza dressed like a hamburger. It is… PIZZABURGER.
What it is: pizza sauce, pepperoni and cheese in a hamburger bun. That’s it.
It is most ubiquitously a mass produced, vacuum-sealed, product. Yes, I am talking about a gas station sandwich.
As far as I know, we have Paul’s Food Factory to thank for this tradition. They started selling subs out of the back of the family station wagon in 1982. It was the golden age of the submarine sandwich, when hungry steel workers and coal miners demanded cheap filling meals. They eventually invested in modern packaging equipment, a vacuum pack machine, automatic label dispenser, and a walk-in cooler. They even leased microwave ovens to convenience stores so that customers could best enjoy their product.
Paul’s Food Factory rose above the competition, and the ritual of nuking pizza burgers in microwaves became ingrained in local tradition. Kids would take their allowance money to the nearest corner store for an after-school treat. The pizza burger would also become the post-drinking meal of choice, as the local Needs was often the only thing open in the wee hours, with alcohol-sopping cuisine.
What to me, (and other mainlanders), is an industrialized sandwich of last resort, is to many Cape Bretoners a thing of pride and nostalgia. I wanted to learn more about the attachment Cape Bretoners have to this sandwich, so I asked some Cape Bretoners to share it in their own words:
“Bob” from New Waterford provided me with this break-down:
The Taste. Mildly sweet bun with sesame seeds, spicier then normal pepperoni, tangy sauce, and milky Mozzarella come together to form a taste that is… just good.
The Texture. (assuming Microwaved in its own bag) the bun gets damp and soft, due to the moisture of the melting cheese, while the (4 slices of) pepperoni are firm enough that you can’t just tear it apart easily, offering some substance.
The Smell. Oh, god… that smell. It truly makes me think I am a teenager again, when I smell that. It’s consumed so much that it reminds me of the smell of the lunch room at school. I’m sure other kids brought other things, but you wouldn’t know it. It’s like when you smell curry. It cannot be ANYTHING else but curry.
“I have not lived in Cape Breton for 20 years, but the first food item I purchase when I visit is a pizza burger. I remember getting them from the corner store at lunch time when I was in elementary school, and waiting at countless convenience store and gas station microwaves for them to finish heating as a teen — the label scorched and steam escaping from the lone cut corner. The love my kids have for these burgers is culinary and genuine. They are like a hot dog with mustard & ketchup — a perfect combination of flavors and textures.” – Liam from Sydney
“During Christmas break, you get the cab to stop at Needs on your way home from the bar. You need to get one for everyone including your taxi driver. When I lived on the mainland I was poking around a gas station looking for them and the owner thought I was crazy. 2am pizza burgers is a summer and Christmas break tradition!” – Person of the Internet
And apparently there is a “standard preparation”:
– “Rip the top and microwave till the label smokes.”
– “When the label turns black you know it’s done.”
– “Poke a hole first or it’ll explode!”
– “That’s why ya take a pen to lunch. Dummy.”
– “The guy at needs will cut them open for ya.”
I don’t know how I feel about cooking food in burning plastic in the microwave, or liquid “cheese” lovingly described as “lava”. While Paul’s pizza burgers are not ingrained into my cultural palate, I do appreciate a good pizza burger. Most pizza shops have pizza burgers on the menu, and you can even get “combination” burgers with mushrooms and green pepper. Now we’re talking!
While Paul’s Food Factory always gets the credit, Mike Nicoletopoulos (whose family opened Island Greek, and claims to have introduced the donair to Cape Breton) says that it was his family that started making pizza burgers – as early as the 1970s.
“My mom and dad sold pizza burgers at Italian Pizzeria (their pizza shop),” he says. “I actually took pizza burgers to grade 6 for show ‘n tell.”
In junior high, his school had “Pizza Burger Fridays” instead of the typical hot dog theme.
“So every Friday I would take an order and my dad would bring the pizza burgers. Milk and a pizza burger for $2. It was a big Kaiser bun with sesame seeds, never on a hamburger bun like you see now. A big crusty bun toasted in the oven. Then we started donair burgers when we had our donair shop. Talk about a hit!”
Sounds good to me!
A few recommendations for homestyle pizza burgers:
“Jane’s in Bras d’Or will make you one for $3 that will make you forget about that dirty Paul’s/Reuben’s stuff.”
“Joan’s does their own in-house pizza burgers with fresh baked buns that are good and $0.99 a piece. You need to warm them up wrapped in something to get that same warm semi-hydrated consistency that the bagged burgers provide though.”
Another variation I just had to try is the Open-Faced Pizza Burger at Pizza Palace!
Wow! What an innovation! The cheese isn’t the best quality but I can’t deny this awesomeness. It is everything good about a Cape Breton pizza on a hamburger bun.
My Side Dish says: “Thank God we don’t live in Cape Breton. These are dangerous.”
In Halifax you are more likely to find a pizza sub, but one place you can count on for a pizza burger is Xtreme Pizza!
“Now, I’m in my late 30s,” says “Bob”, “living in Alberta, and trust me when I say that ANY time a Cape Bretoner is going home, they bring back these for themselves, and others. I recently brought back 15 in a suitcase, 5 for me, and 5 each for two grown ass men, who crave these.”
Where else can you find pizza burgers in Nova Scotia? Where is your favourite? Let me know in the comments!