A modern-day pizzeria with a smart design

“People actually want to eat pizza in big groups,” says Jennie Dobbs, who’s been watching people eat pizza every day for ten years now. Dobbs owns Morris East, a thin-crust pizza chain in Halifax that recently added it’s third location. Dobbs started her pizza empire in a humble location, downtown on Morris Street, in 2008. Propelled by the success of that first location, Dobbs moved on to open a large, airy 95-seat restaurant five years later on Larry Uteck Boulevard in South Bedford, where she noticed friends and families were coming to eat pizza in a group setting — and lots of them.

About two-and-a-half years ago, Dobbs noticed a billboard for a new condo development coming to the corner of Vernon Street and Quinpool Road, called The Keep. “I phoned them and asked what they were going to offer for commercial spaces,” says Dobbs. And so the plans for opening the third Morris East location kicked into gear. “I live in this area,” says Dobbs. “I thought the community could really benefit from having a place you can walk to.” The desire to open up shop in her own neighbourhood and the knowledge that in a residential area such as the west end, people are looking to gather and eat pizza on the regular, motivated Dobbs to look for an opportunity in the Quinpool Road area; and the doors to the new location opened on August 3rd. Situated on the ground floor of The Keep, where guests can walk in from street level, grab a quick slice from the “slice shop” or sit in the 90-seat dining room for a full-service experience.

Dobbs learned from opening the larger Bedford location that layout functionality was key to accommodate groups, and private parties, too. “Everything is modular,” Dobbs says, showing me booths and dividers that are all on lockable wheels, during a tour of the new space. The clean, industrial aesthetic is complemented with touches of warmth. Concrete floors and stylish acoustical panels hang low from the middle of the dining room ceiling, quieting the room and achieving a cozy feel. Blonde wooden booths with plush grey cushions and wooden wall panels lighten the room; where there are also a couple long “party tables,” as Dobbs calls them, and a few seats at the bar. “I wanted to open a modern pizzeria,” says Dobbs as she points out subtle design cues, like triangular shapes found in tiles and wood etchings, that represent pizza slices, and marble countertops that nod to traditional Italian methods.

Attached to the dining room is a bright, white space with high ceilings and huge windows housing a take-out counter, which Dobbs refers to as the “slice shop”. The quick-service counter is designed to be its own entity, accommodating takeout orders, single slices, salads and, soon, retail items like fresh pasta, dough balls, and tomato sauce. Did I mention there’s a soft serve machine? And the tiny space is even licensed. “You can get a 12-ounce beer for $4.75 while you wait!” Says Dobbs, clearly excited. She insists I take a slice to go after our chat, and I leave with an enormous piece of the best-selling Lumberjack pizza (more on that later) and a cup of vanilla soft serve smothered in salted caramel and Oreo crumbs. The slice shop is open from 11 AM to 10 PM daily.

A few days later, I’m back for dinner. It’s a Friday night and the dining room is mostly full, with families, groups, and a few couples. Next door people are coming and going for slices. It’s definitely got a vibe that feels like it’s been here longer than just a few weeks. From almost any vantage point the flames inside the Woodstone pizza oven are visible; the kitchen is large and open-concept, lining the back wall.

“We opened with what we knew really worked well,” says Dobbs of the launch menu. You will find a list of about a dozen pizzas, mainstays like the Lumberjack, Three Mongers, and Peach. This inventive, California style pizza made with local ingredients — always on a killer thin crust — is what has made Morris East a prime pizza destination in Halifax for the last ten years. Whether from the European-style wood-burning oven at the original restaurant, or the propane-fuelled open flame Woodstone ovens in the two new locations, Dobbs says: “It’s not the oven that makes a great pizza, it’s the attitude of the person making the pizza.”

“We try to have some lighter, shareable options before you eat a pizza,” says Dobbs. And so I try a few: seared peaches with ricotta cheese, a pistachio mousse, and the shaved salad. I dig into the peaches: dark, sticky, and sweet on the seared side, placed on a bed of mild, herbed ricotta cheese, drizzled with aged balsamic. A nice, light and summery prelude. The shaved salad is a hearty combination of kale, shaved cauliflower, and fennel, topped with small slices of sugary dates. The sesame seed dressing is gently nutty. A perfect bite has every flavour, the sweetness of the dates balancing everything out. The ricotta-pistachio mousse with crostini is my favourite: ricotta whipped with feta, cream, and lemon zest, with crunchy chunks of green pistachio throughout.

Pizza hot from the oven arrives and I’m immediately reminded why the Lumberjack is a long-running bestseller. This tomato-based pie has caramelized onions, applewood smoked cheddar, mozzarella, sausage, huge strips of bacon, crispy, fried rosemary scattered over top, and a maple drizzle. The smoky, cheesy, salty, and sweet combination really is a winner — making it hard to stop eating. The gorgeous Peach pizza is a personal favourite: maple rosemary aioli, shallots, goat cheese, and prosciutto, topped with fresh, peppery arugula. Again, both salty,  sweet, and balanced. For dessert, I choose the predictable yet consistently delicious salted caramel tart, a Morris East fan-favourite.

Chef Tim Andresen

“I wanted it to be as inclusive as possible,” says Dobbs of the new location. “I want you to feel like you could bring your girlfriends here, bring your grandmother, your work colleagues.” The new space has the potential to be a lot of things to a lot of people. Undoubtedly an accessible, family-friendly pizzeria, it’s also a quick service slice shop with soft serve, and a place that has great lunch specials — not to mention, prosecco happy hour from 4-6 PM daily. “A neighbourhood restaurant means accommodating all of the people in your neighbourhood,” says Dobbs. I get the feeling she’s accomplished just that.

The new(est) Morris East is located at 1984 Vernon Street, in The Keep, and is open daily from 11 AM to 11 PM.