Monday, December 14, 2009

Impressions: Firehouse

711 NE Dekum Ave
Portland, OR 97211
(503) 954-1702

(photo courtesy of Firehouse)
For about a year now, I have adamantly believed there to be only two truly sublime pizzerias in the Portland metropolitan area: Ken's Artisan and Apizza Scholls. A few weeks ago, I had the distinct pleasure of being proven utterly wrong when I joined some friends for a fabulous dinner at Firehouse. After a second dinner last night, I can promise you that Firehouse deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as those titans.
(photo courtesy of Firehouse)
As its name implies, Firehouse is in fact built in the remnants of the old Dekum firehouse in northeast Portland. Owners Matthew and Elizabeth Busetto gutted the interior, stripping the walls down to the beautiful red brick, obliterating the ugly popcorn ceilings, and restoring the glorious old wooden beams. Their dreams of owning a restaurant fulfilled, Matthew now works downstairs with his old friend from New Seasons, Eric Rose, and pastry chef Gretchen Glatte, while Elizabeth practices Chiropractic and Naturopathic medicine upstairs. (You can read more about their story here).
Shortly after taking our seats (the restaurant takes reservations, God bless them) our hungry party perused the menu, which changes daily, and ordered a few drinks, appetizers (some very tasty fried cauliflower, so-so roasted beets and walnuts) and a few pizzas, more than we could possibly eat that night but enough to get a good feel for chefs Busetto and Rose's repertoire.
First up: the Margherita ($11). The pizzas coming out of the enormous wood-fired oven at Firehouse are Neapolitan in nature, and the Margherita makes this abundantly clear. The crust is thin, light, and airy, wonderfully charred by the oven, and delicious. The sauce is a simple, very bright concoction of crushed tomatoes (San Marzanos, I'd wager) and light seasoning, the classic flavors you'd expect from the best Neapolitan pies. The mozzarella is fresh and creamy, and its flavor is enhanced by the generous grating of some nicely salty hard cheese atop the whole pie, most likely parmigiano-reggiano, pecorino, or parmesan.
This is a dynamite Margherita, and I think the best in the city. It's not soupy like many Neapolitan Margheritas, and it holds up well even after it's cooled for a time. I couldn't get enough of this pie. It's salty in all the right ways, and the flavor of those tomatoes shines through splendidly in every bite. My one complaint with Firehouse's Margherita: both nights the pizzaiolo seriously stiffed us on the basil. There were perhaps three or four basil leaves on the entire pie, with at least half the slices lacking any basil at all. To capture the true balance of the Margherita, they're going to have to work on this. Still, I've yet to have a better Margherita in the entire city. It's the one to beat.
As much as I love a good Margherita, I get even more excited when we start getting into the realm of meat toppings, so of course we had to order the Spicy House Fennel Sausage & Onion pizza ($12). The sausage is the star of the show here. Juicy, slightly spicy, and made in-house, the sausage has perfect texture, not too tough or too crumbly, with just the right level of fennel flavor to it. It makes this pie absolutely worthwhile, though I was a little put off by the onions. They're placed raw on the pizza just before it enters the oven, coming out steaming hot but still crispy. Others may actually find this a selling point for this pizza (and indeed my friend and neighbor Kevin Wilson loved it), but I would have preferred the onions roasted first before being added to the pizza. The snap of the al dente onions made them feel too raw for my mouth. But I'm just being picky, really. They don't hurt the pie. It's still delicious. (Ed. - On a subsequent visit, the onions were less sharp and thus melded perfectly with the rest of the ingredients).
The first night we dined at Firehouse, the fennel sausage pizza had not cooked in the oven long enough, and as a result the crust hadn't quite solidified enough to withstand the weight of the sizeable chunks of sausage. This, coupled with the sauce soaking into the crust and further weakening it, caused major tip sag. Not disastrous by any means, but the pie could have used another 30 - 60 seconds in the heat of the flames. This seems to have been a one-time issue, because I haven't experience it on any subsequent trip to the restaurant.
After the Margherita, my favorite pizza at Firehouse is their Salami and Green Olives pizza ($12). Sometimes olives on a pizza can be overwhelming, but the green olives used on this pie sang a song of balanced perfection on the palate, with just the right levels of "olive" flavor and saltiness. The salami, too, didn't overstep its boundaries, but played off the boldness of the olives with a mild yet distinctive meatiness. It also managed to avoid becoming overly greasy, a serious problem with many types of salami that never became an issue here. A fantastic pizza.

A fourth pie we tried (but one I sadly did not photograph) was a pizza with Oil-Cured Olives, Garlic, and Chile Oil ($12). Those three ingredients alone made this a pie with robust flavors impossible to ignore. In this case, I thought perhaps the olives were a little overpowering, and we all felt it was our least-favorite pie of the night, but we still enjoyed it.
(photo courtesy of Firehouse)
Before I sign off, I do have to mention one thing I find slightly frustrating: Firehouse does not cut its pies, and leave you to do it with a knife and fork. Now, this is how pizza is traditionally served in Naples, Italy, and I would expect no less -- were I in Naples, Italy. This is Portland, Oregon, and while the pizzas are unequivocally inspired by those in Naples, the rest of the cuisine on the menu is not restricted in origin by that city. Another Portland restaurant, Nostrana, also irritatingly serves its pies uncut, but at least they offer kitchen shears which easily slice through the dough, sauce, and cheese. The knives provided by Firehouse to accomplish this task aren't quite sharp enough to make a very clean job of it. Neapolitans will love it, though.
(photo courtesy of Firehouse)
Does Firehouse have room for improvement? Sure it does. But these minor quibbles aside, I'm thrilled by the pizza coming out of their oven, and even more thrilled that Portland has a great pizzeria for which reservations can be secured. Neither Ken's Artisan nor Apizza Scholls can offer that godsend. This place gets busy, so the next time you want outstanding pizza but don't feel like waiting in line, you can just give Firehouse a call and snag your reservation. I love that. And I love the pizza here. It's undeniably great.

OVEN: Wood

RECOMMENDED: Margherita, Salami & Green Olives Pizza

Update 7/21/10 -- A recent visit to Firehouse found that nearly all of my previous quibbles with the food had been rectified. The pies coming out of the oven now are cooked perfectly, with plenty of wonderful black char on both the underside of the crust and the cornicione. The food is dynamite, though they're still not cutting their pies...


  1. I generally agree with you. Firehouse makes very good pizzas and some of the things you didn't like about it are things that I also had issues with—the tip sag, the paltry amount of basil, and that they're uncut. But I think all of those things are hallmarks of traditional Neapolitan pizzas. So it just is what it is with respect to those things.

    In general, I was not super-impressed by Firehouse's crust. It looked pretty and had great springy-spongy texture at the edges, but it lacked the savoriness of Ken's. And I'm not a huge fan of the origami-paper thinness of the traditional Neapolitan pie.

    For me Firehouse can't compete with Ken's. But then, I think Ken's is atop the Portland pizza pyramid and possibly the best pizza I've had on the West Coast. Scholls is my #2 PDX pizza, but has the advantage of playing more to my preferences in terms of style (NY thin crust). Firehouse falls in the same plane as Pyro and Wy'east. Really, truly delicious, but I'm not gonna go across town for it on the regular or wait over an hour for it (which, thankfully, none of these three require... actually, my friends and I got 6 pies from Pyro last night and it only took 15 or 20 minutes).

  2. Hey, Flushy. Sorry to hear that you don't like Firehouse's crust. While it's true that Ken's definitely has the superior crust (and in fact the only crust I've ever had that beats Ken's is Pizzeria Bianco's in Phoenix), I still think Firehouse's dough recipe is delicious. It's really just a classic Neapolitan crust, so as you said, if you don't like that style of crust, you won't like Firehouse's.

    I disagree about the comparison to Pyro and Wy'east. I think they're both good for cart pizza, but neither reaches anywhere near the quality of Firehouse's pizza. I mean, it's not even close.

    I do agree that Ken's is #1 in Portland (and indeed the west coast), with Apizza Scholls a close second. For me, Firehouse is #3.

    Another thing I love about Firehouse: their pizzas are inexpensive, with not a pie over $12. Compare their $11 Margherita to the grossly overpriced version at Seattle's Serious Pie. $15 dollars for an awful pizza half the size of one at Firehouse. No thanks.

    Thanks for the comments!

  3. Well, it's all relative, ya? I mean, I do enjoy Firehouse's pizza. Their crust is better than 90% of the pizzas out there. But when it's set next to Ken's and Scholls—I mean, that's some tough competition.

    Also: that oven is pretty piece of work. I want one!

  4. Yeah, that is a nice oven. It's from the same company that made Nostrana's.

  5. Whenever we stop by Portland, we always eat at Firehouse. Like Flushy, I'm very much in love with the crust. Actually, I eat it last! And I also like the fact that the whole restaurant was built in a real firehouse. When my cousin applied for restaurant loans and merchant loans to expand his catering business to a restaurant, he also named his business after the old building where it was located. It worked well because it was something that people were already familiar with.

  6. @John: Isn't Firehouse great? They've really come a long way from their early days. I don't live in Portland anymore, so I really miss eating there.

  7. Firehouse ROCKS! Whenever we eat there, it just feels right. Why don't you make traveling to Portland a goal for this year so you could eat there again? I'm sure the Margherita misses you now.

  8. @John: Since I'm in Seattle, getting to Portland isn't too much of a hassle. I'll be back there at least once this year, hopefully more.