Thursday, November 5, 2009

Portland Pizza Crawl with Adam Kuban

1401 SE Morrison St
Portland, OR 97214
(503) 234-2427

2738 NE Alberta St
Portland, OR 97211
(503) 253-6766

Pizza blogs are a dime a dozen, but one blog stands head and shoulders above the rest (including this one). Do I even need to tell you?

It's Slice.

Adam Kuban, a former Portlander, moved to New York City around the turn of the century and founded Slice as an ode to his one true love: pizza. Okay, maybe he has a different true love, but I don't know him that well, so let's just assume it's pizza.

Anyway. Slice. It is the pizza blog to read on the internets. Slice got picked up by Ed Levine's Serious Eats, which just happens to be the food blog to read on the...yeah, you get it. Both sites have benefited from the association with the other, and both are mega-popular among the foodies. If you want to know about pizza--not just in NY, but across the world--you read Slice.

So imagine my excitement when I learned that Adam Kuban was about to embark on a serious pizza research expedition of the West Coast, and that his first stop would be Portland, Oregon (you know, where I live), and that he wanted me to join him on his two-day Portland pizza crawl.

As the writer of a pizza blog, I am shamefully indifferent to the idea that a site like mine (well, mine specifically) should offer its readership such amenities as, oh, daily updates, or comprehensive pizza coverage. I'm just too slow and lazy to be on top of things like that. In Portland, this tiny speck of a metropolis, you can count the notable pizzerias on one hand (plus one or two extra fingers if you're feeling generous). Of these six or seven pizzerias, I had visited a grand total of three. Just disgraceful, yeah?

That was all going to change now with Adam Kuban's arrival. Since he wanted to hit as many of Portland's best pizza joints during his brief stay in town, and since I was going to pal around with him the whole time, I was going to get to try two new places I hadn't hit yet and probably wouldn't for another few months of procrastination. It was perfect: work and play, living together in joyous harmony like the slogan on some peacenik bumper sticker on the back of a brown 1987 station wagon.

We hit Ken's Artisan Pizza first. You all know how I feel about Ken's (and if you don't, just read about it here). I wanted so desperately to have that high opinion validated by hearing Adam say he loved it too. I knew my plan couldn't fail. You see, I had a secret weapon: it's called the Soppressata Basil pie, and Ken's makes a masterful version of it. I knew that if Adam tried this pizza, he'd become a believer.

Then God in His infinite jest proved once again how little control we have over this world of ours and halted the production of the soppressata Ken's uses for one week. The one week Adam Kuban of Slice was in town, he would not be able to eat my absolute favorite meal in Portland. This is the definition of suffering.

We still had a great meal at Ken's. The hit of the evening was the fennel sausage & onion pie, to which we added hot Calabrian chilies, and Adam loved it (or at least he said as much to placate me). You can read his thoughts on the experience here.

From Ken's we went directly to Wy'east Pizza, the cart two blocks north of Powell on 50th (you can read my impressions here and Adam's here). We ended up getting the last ball of dough for the evening, but had to wait about two hours for the finished pizza (Wy'east cooks only one pie at a time, you see, so the queue fills up rather quickly). It tasted the same as it did the first time I was there, which is to say that it's a decent pie (made even more so by the fact that it's from a cart, though that crust was still lacking in flavor.

On Day 2, the schedule was tight: Apizza Scholls, followed by Nostrana, then concluding with Al Forno Ferruzza.

Had I any foresight whatsoever, I would not have gorged myself at Apizza Scholls. I am in love with Brian Spangler's sausage pie, and tonight's was no exception. Just the best sausage pizza in the world. We also tried the 'Margo'rita, the Apizza Amore (a 'Margo'rita with hot capicola), and the house special, which had some kind of pork, onions, and Italian spices sprinkled on top. All were magnificent, and Spangler was a gracious host. He even handed out free T-shirts. Cool! You can read Adam's opinion here.

There was no delay between Scholls and our next destination, Nostrana. Nostrana is a full Italian restaurant, offering many great entrees on its menu, but we were only there for the pizza. Nostrana has the distinction of being the only pizzeria in Portland with VPN certification (CORRECTION: Nostrana is not VPN-certified. They have a Vera Pizza Napoletana sign up for "decoration" inside the restaurant, but no actual certification). This can mean anything, really, as it's no true indication of the quality of the pizza, only that it has been made to the precise specifications of the Verace Pizza Napoletana organization in Naples, Italy. So it was with high hopes (and a full stomach) that we sat down and ordered a single Margherita.

The pie was out of Nostrana's wood-burning oven lickity-split and placed before us piping hot. Nostrana, in the true Neapolitan tradition, does not cut its pies, instead opting to present its pizzas to the customer as whole discs. They do, however, provide some durable kitchen shears that do the job nicely. There's some kind of joyous youthful nostalgia that comes with picking up those scissors and cutting into your pizza as if it were construction paper, and Adam and I actually did a pretty good job of dividing the pie into six equal slices with them.

As for the pizza itself, it didn't rock my world. It's far from the best Neapolitan-style pizza I've had in the United States, and not even close to the top of the list for even the Pacific Northwest. The best thing about it is the sauce, as it's a pretty standard San Marzano blend. The rest of the pie seems a step down in quality from other VPN-certified pizzerias I've visited, such as Tutta Bella and Ristorante Picolinos in Seattle. The crust that night--crisper than most Neapolitan pies--was a little bland, and the mozzarella was on the thick side. It's not a bad pie by any means, just not an outstanding one. And next-day reheating is out of the question: I tried it, and it was a disaster, turning the crust to rubber and the collective flavors to something very unappealing. I still recommend you get a pizza when you come here, but get one with more toppings on it, and finish it there.

Last stop of the crawl: Al Forno Ferruzza, the former PSU-adjacent cart-turned-brick-and-mortar pizzeria. Adam and I were joined by one of his old Portland pals, and the three of us dug into the house Margherita. I think Adam said it best: "It smells and tastes like the pizza I make at home." This is actually a dead-on assessment of the pizza at Al Forno Ferruzza. The crust is salty and chewy, not astoundingly airy but not overly dense either. The sauce is alternately smooth and chunky (I got an enormous cube of tomato on my slice) and just a little too salty, often pushed aside by the mounds of too-thick cheese that hasn't been in the oven long enough to melt fully. Rounding out the toppings is a nice grated Argentine parmesan that helped give the pie a little more character, which up to this point had been lacking.

Like Nostrana, this isn't bad pizza. Far from it, actually. It's just not blow-your-mind pizza like Ken's Artisan or Apizza Scholls. If you're hungry for pizza and you're in the neighborhood, and don't feel like driving/waiting in line at either of the two Big Ones, you could do worse than Al Forno Ferruzza. I've heard the calzones are killer, too; next time I'll try one.

So that was the two-day pizza bonanza with Adam Kuban. I had a blast, and I hope Adam did, too. He flew off the next day to hit a few places in Seattle (among them Serious Pie, which I'll be writing up next), followed by San Francisco, L.A., and Phoenix, so his pizza binge was just getting started. Me, I had enough leftovers in the fridge from these shenanigans to cover lunch for a week, but somehow I couldn't bear to look at another slice for...well, at least a day.

Hey, there are starving kids in Africa. Can't let this perfectly good pizza go to waste.


  1. Thanks for coming along on the binge, Adam. It was good to see you again and this time on your turf. I really did like Ken's and wasn't just nodding along for your benefit. Outstanding stuff. I only hope I didn't bore you with the constant Portland reminiscences or annoy you with all the "Is XYZ still around?" questions!

  2. Not at all. I only wish I knew Portland better so I could supply you with better answers! Anyway, glad you liked the pizza, and I hope Portland stirred up some good memories.

  3. Sausage and peppers at Apizza Scholls is truly great stuff. I also enjoy the coastal (margarita plus anchovies).

    And interesting test would be to see how Monday pizza night at Ken's Artisan Bakery (using the baker's pride ovens) compares to Ken's Artisan Pizza with their wood ovens.

    Another place that's got a wood burning oven for you to check out would be Nel Centro.

  4. @SauceSupreme: I love wood-burning ovens. Nel Centro's been on my "must try" list for a while, even though they don't serve pizza. As for the Ken's Bakery pizzas vs. the actual Ken's pizzeria, I'm sure the ones at the pizzeria are superior, as I don't believe Ken uses a wood-burning oven at the bakery. Can anyone confirm/deny this??

  5. I can't wait for Adam's post on Delancey! Are you coming back any time soon?

  6. It's June '10 and he STILL hasn't posted about Delancey! Get on it, Kuban!

  7. Hi Adam!
    You're in luck! A new pizza joint just opened near Union Station and, after living in NYC for 15 years, I have to say this is one of my favorites. I've already been here twice this week. The location is 600 NW Naito, just one block closer to the river from Union Station. Right across the footbridge in fact and close to Yellow and Green Union Max Station stops. It's considered Old Town.
    They told me today that they launched a website today: Cute staff and yummy pizza. Come by soon!!

  8. @cupcake: Cool, I will check them out as soon as I can! Thanks for letting me know.

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