No city in America is more associated with food carts than Portland, Oregon. Czech, Mexican, Japanese, Thai, Korean, Chinese, Greek, Indian, Polish, Turkish, Venezuelan, Southern, Barbecue...you name it, Portland's probably got it in a convenient on-the-go form.
Neapolitan-style pizza, though...now there's a rare commodity in the food cart scene.
Until today, I was aware of only one food cart serving this kind of pizza in the city, and that was Wy'east over on SE 50th. There, proprietor "Squish" cooks his Naples-and-New York-inspired pies one at a time in a tiny gas-fired oven, and does a very fine job with it.
But then a friend of mine alerted me to another food cart in Portland over in SE 12th and Hawthorne's "Cartopia," one that was serving Neapolitan/NY-style pizza from a wood-burning oven. A wood-burning oven. In a cart. My mind was effectively blown.
How could that work? A wood-burning oven in one of those diminutive shacks-on-wheels certainly seems like an accident waiting to happen, at worst a death wish for some suicidal pizzaiolo wishing to submit his body to the conflagration with which his product so desperately communes. Gathering my neighbors from across the street (who with their far superior camera graciously provided some of the photos for this piece), I set out tonight to see just what sort of madness was at play here on this cold autumn's eve.
Pyro Pizza is a more intimidating cart than most of the others clustered in "Cartopia." It sits higher than the others, requiring the use of a deck to reach the service window, through which owner John Eads's surprisingly large domed oven can be viewed plainly. As we approached the cart, Eads was gathering what looked like alder wood for the oven. He brought the wood to the side of the cart, where a chopping block and maul lay waiting. Yes folks, he proceeded to chop the wood then and there, splitting it to a size better suited to the oven. I can think of no better way of measuring Eads's pride in his work, that his love of pizza would permit the necessity of the most primeval means of manual labor: splitting firewood. Not for a brick-and-mortar pizzeria, may I remind you, but for a pizza cart. That's dedication, my friends.
Filled with an immense sense of respect for the man, my friends and I ordered two pizzas off the menu: the traditional Margherita (with mozzarella di bufala!), and the daily special, which was the roasted garlic, plum tomato, spinach, and gorgonzola pizza. Both were ready in five minutes, twelve-inch wonders served simply on wax paper in reusable baskets.
I sampled the Traditional Margherita ($8) first. Eads spreads his dough very, very thin, and this makes for a marvelously crisp crust with light-to-moderate charring on the underside. The cornicione is large, puffy, and chewy, with a nice hole structure. I should note that Eads makes his dough fresh every day with Bob's Red Mill whole wheat flour, but for whatever reason, it doesn't smack of whole wheat like the many other versions I've tried over the years. Eads's crust has the flavor of good bread, and thankfully is neither fibrous of texture nor "healthy" in taste. You know what I mean. I think the crust is pretty great, and with the heavenly black blisters making periodic appearances, worthy of being eaten in its entirety.
The red sauce is not yet perfect. It was alternately too sweet or too salty, depending on the bite, and at times I swear I could taste something akin to aluminum, perhaps from the cans the tomatoes had been packed in? Hard to tell. Sometimes you just get a bad tomato in the can. It's not a bad sauce by any means, but it could stand some improvement. (Ed. -- I just heard from Eads that the sauce contains no sugar. Instead, the sweetness in the sauce comes entirely from the tomatoes and the roasted red onions blended in with them. Fascinating!)
I'm curious to know where Eads gets his buffalo mozzarella, because while it tasted fine on the Margherita, its time spent in the oven disintegrated every ounce of it into ricotta. It's tough to tell by looking at the pictures, but trust me, it was evident on the first bite. Very peculiar.
I'm also curious to know where he gets his gargantuan basil. I mean, just look at the basil in that first shot of the Margherita. It's huge. Took up the whole slice! It tasted great, too. Fresh, vibrant, and full of flavor. Speaking of the basil, I washed down my pizza with Eads's homemade Basil Lime Soda ($1.50). This was an initially strange yet oddly satisfying soda in which you could very much taste the basil of its namesake. I don't know how Eads makes it, whether he uses fresh basil and extracts its essence or achieves it by some other means, but this is a winner.
The second pie, the Daily Special ($8), was much heavier on the toppings, and as such the crust wasn't quite able to support them (though a quick fold remedied that). There are a lot of strong flavors working together here: the gorgonzola is aggressive with a very pleasant bite, the bits of plum tomatoes provide wonderfully sweet explosions of juice, and the huge chunks of roasted garlic ooze their fragrant oils over the entire pie. I couldn't quite taste the spinach, but given those first three ingredients, it's easy to understand why.
I liked the special with its complex, robust flavor set, but it was hard to eat more than a slice of it. It may be too rich for my palate, but others bored of the more basic pies may find just what they're looking for here. It's a great pizza for sharing.
Before we left, I managed to speak to Eads briefly about Pyro Pizza and the fact that it has been open for only two weeks now. We also chatted about his oven, which is comprised of a brick floor and a refractory dome. Eads says he built the oven first on the four-wheel flatbed, then built the trailer around the oven. It's now crammed full with a work counter, coolers in the back to store the various ingredients and sodas, a fully functional sink, shelves, and even a rack of fancy lights (which you can kind of see in the photo above). This was clearly a planned operation, and if it wasn't, then I'm even more amazed. Eads already owns another pizza cart in downtown Portland called Give Pizza a Chance, an establishment I have not yet frequented but certainly will after my experience here.
It's still early in the life of Pyro Pizza. There are some kinks to work out, but so far the pies coming out of John Eads's oven are surprisingly good for pizza from a cart of all places. Next time (and there will definitely be a next time) I'm going to try some of the other items on his menu, including the pepperoni and the Cuattro Formaggi. I've also heard that Eads on occasion makes a bacon-and-egg pizza, which I'd love to sample.
For the prices Eads is selling these pies, you're getting a heck of a deal. If you're not in the mood to wait in line at one of Portland's more popular pizzerias, I highly encourage you to swing by Pyro and get your fix. It's quick, it's good, and Eads's love of pizza comes through in every bite.
And you may as well get some poutine from Potato Champion while you're there, since you're in the neighborhood...
RECOMMENDED: Margherita, Basil Lime Soda