The slice is right CrusTop Pizza’s rectangular pies a square meal with outside-the-box toppings

Of all the colours in the rainbow, yellow is far and away the happiest. It’s why Wendy Xu’s bright new Corydon Avenue pizza joint is awash with sunshine-yellow accents — everything from the floor to the logo to the glowing neon pizza slice in the front window.

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Of all the colours in the rainbow, yellow is far and away the happiest. It’s why Wendy Xu’s bright new Corydon Avenue pizza joint is awash with sunshine-yellow accents — everything from the floor to the logo to the glowing neon pizza slice in the front window.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
CrusTop Pizza Project began with a goal of bringing joy to customers.

Xu, 30, started CrusTop Pizza Project with joy in mind. The space is whimsical, the toppings are novel and the pies are rectangular.

“I want the food to make people more happy,” she says of her non-standard pizza shape, adding with a laugh: “It’s longer, so they will have a longer time (to be) happy.”

Getting to this point, however, wasn’t entirely joyful.

Finding a landlord who would take a chance on a first-time entrepreneur with an untested concept was a challenge. Construction took twice as long as expected and materials were twice as pricey, thanks to the pandemic. The last seven months have been filled with setbacks Xu has had to navigate solo.

Originally from China, Xu arrived in Winnipeg on a cold, snowy Christmas Eve 4 1/2 years ago. She left Beijing, where she worked as a reporter for a lifestyle magazine and newspaper, to pursue a new career path through the business management program at the University of Manitoba.

It was an easy decision to stay in the city and open a business post-graduation.

“When I came here, I’m alone, I have no friends, no family and I can’t speak English, can’t understand people. And strangers in Winnipeg, they gave me a lot of help,” Xu says. “I went to Vancouver and Toronto and people are too busy; they don’t have time to talk with you.”

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Owner Wendy Xu filled her new pizza place with cheerful yellow accents.

She’s found community here, but it’s still lonely being so far away from loved ones. Early on, Xu — an only child — chose not to tell her parents about the business venture. She didn’t want to add to their worries about her living alone abroad. For months, she kept the challenges of starting a restaurant under wraps.

“The first day when I opened my door to customers, I took a picture and sent it to my parents,” she says with tears welling up. “They said, ‘Oh, we’re so proud.’ In that moment I really felt like all the stress had gone away… I feel like I’m stronger because of this.”

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Xu’s pizza include more traditional styles like the The Oh! Canadian pizza (right) with tomato sauce, pepperoni, mushrooms, bacon and mozzarella, and the Potato Pops pizza (left) with mashed yukon potatoes, mozzarella, cheddar, bacon, and red and green onions.

CrusTop opened in late April and Xu has been busy collecting feedback on her menu, which is a mix of classic pizza toppings and combinations inspired by her love of international cuisine.

Most of her cooking knowledge comes from online courses and interviews with high-profile chefs during her time as a food reporter. Writing stories about Beijing’s burgeoning pizza scene got her thinking about dough as a vessel for cultural creativity beyond meat, cheese and red sauce — although there are plenty of those options available at CrusTop.

After many hours of experimenting in her home kitchen, Xu has come up with some compelling flavour combinations. The Potato Pops pizza, for example, features mashed potatoes garnished with bacon, cheddar cheese and onions, all topped with a truffle aioli, while the Kimchi Chicken Bacon comes with a kimchi tomato sauce, nori flakes and white sesame seeds.

There is also a wide selection of sides — from wings to salads to dough balls — and a tiramisu-inspired dessert pie.

In addition to its rectangular offerings, which feed one to two people, the restaurant does serve traditional round pizzas for larger parties.

The last few weeks have been confirmation that Xu is on the right track.

“I didn’t do a lot of marketing,” she says. “The first week, people came here and they keep coming back.”

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Xu is a former magazine journalist in China who, following an assignment about pizza dough, became inspired to start her own business.

Even though she’s at the restaurant seven days a week (on top of working part-time as a personal trainer), Xu is no longer flying solo. She has three staff members and dreams of turning CrusTop into a franchise that empowers other newcomer women to start their own businesses in Canada.

“I know how hard it is to live in a new country,” Xu says. “Women give up a lot for family, for their kids, and I really think I can help them if they want to start a new life here.”

CrusTop Pizza Project is located at 20-1700 Corydon Ave. and is currently open for takeout and dine-in Monday through Sunday. Delivery is expected to become available in the next month. Visit crustoppizza.com for more information and opening hours.

eva.wasney@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @evawasney

Eva Wasney

Eva Wasney
Arts Reporter

Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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