Portland, OR 97227
(all photographs by Adam Lindsley)
Much to the dismay of its most loyal (and vocal) advocates, the esteemed Lovely Hula Hands on North Mississippi closed its doors late last year. Now, just a few weeks later, owners Sarah and Jane Minnick are back in business next door at Lovely's Fifty-Fifty, their wood-fired pizzeria and mini ice cream parlor. Promising to stick with their longstanding belief in buying exclusively from local farmers and keeping the menu on a seasonal rotation, the Minnicks have opened a stylish, modern pizzeria that is, if the crowd Thursday night was any indication, already popular with the locals and culinary bloodhounds.
After a few pleasant starters (a lightly toasted Brussels sprouts plate and a beet & blood orange salad) and some bottled beers (their taps will be ready soon), our three pies hit the table steaming hot and smelling strongly of freshly baked bread. Though I had been hoping to try their hot soppressata pie, it had been removed from the menu prior to our arrival. Disappointing, yes, but I'm sure they had a valid reason for it, and I have a feeling it will make its return again soon. No matter. In its place we ordered the Margherita, the Fennel Sausage & Rapini, and the Bacon, New Potato, & Rosemary pizzas.
The Margherita ($12), sports an alternately puffy and flat cornicione with delicious char all around and on the upskirt. The crust is so puffy in places that it reminded me of the enormous corniciones on the pies at Mario Batali and Nancy Silverton's Mozza in Los Angeles. The dough has a slight sweetness to it, more so than any other crust I've had in Portland. Perhaps there's a bit of sugar or honey in there? Regardless, the crust was excellent, with a crisp crunch on the outside giving way to a chewy, mildly dense interior. The sauce, like all great red sauces, was bright with the flavors of fresh tomatoes, and well seasoned.
The cheese situation on the Margherita is a bit of a conundrum. While the requisite mozzarella is very much present, the pie arrived at the table with a very visible layer of yellow grease covering the cheese, which indicated to me the presence of something oilier, probably cheddar (or the greasiest aged mozz I've ever seen). One bite and the cheddar flavor hits you full-force. The cheese layer is thick with the ricotta-like texture of the melted cheddar (or whatever it is), and overpowers both the sauce and the crust, resulting in major tip sag. I don't know for sure what cheese is accompanying the mozzarella on this pie, but the Margherita is a classic for a reason. If there's room for experimentation, this isn't the pie for it.
(Ed. -- ExtraMSG (Nick Zukin) of Portlandfood.org visited Lovely's a couple days after I did and was served a vastly different Margherita. See his post on the Portlandfood.org forums for pics and a description of what I mean.)
Update 1/25/10 -- Lovely's Fifty-Fifty chef Jimmy Albee contacted me to let me know that they have started making their own mozzarella, which would explain the disparity between the Margherita I had and the one ExtraMSG was served. Albee informs me that the previous curd they were using melted into a pool in the intense flames of the wood-burning oven (as evidenced by the photograph above), but that they are much happier with their homemade mozz now. Thanks for the heads-up, Jimmy!
For all that, though...it still tastes pretty good.
Moving on, the Bacon, New Potato, & Rosemary pie ($14) is exactly what I mean by successfully experimenting with flavor combinations (and again, a comparison to a very similar pie at Mozza must be made here). Sans red sauce, this pizza gets much of its distinctive flavor from the smokiness of the strips of bacon arranged sparingly on the cheesy bed and the abundance (perhaps overabundance) of freshly chopped rosemary sprinkled everywhere like green snowflakes. It's good that these two ingredients were so potent, because the potatoes were flavorless, and almost totally absent from the pie -- a few slices lacked them completely. If the pizzaiolo were to cut back a bit on the rosemary and up the seasoning on the potatoes, this pie would go from good to great.
Finally, the favorite pie of the evening was almost unanimously the Fennel Sausage & Rapini pizza ($15). The superb red sauce makes a triumphant return here, aided by the mouth-watering hunks of sweet-and-salty fennel sausage. The presence of the rapini, however, wasn't a big hit with everyone, myself included. The bitterness of the broccoli doesn't meld successfully with the sausage, and while it was hardly a dealbreaker, this pie would be better served without it. Still, by all means a very fine pizza.
We finished the meal with a sampling of four of the six house-made ice cream flavors, including salted caramel, bourbon vanilla, chocolate, and mint stracciatella. All were satisfying, but I must make special mention of the salted caramel as the standout of the bunch. Its sweet/salty contrast reminded me somewhat of an icier version of the sea-salted butterscotch budino at, yes, Mozza in Los Angeles. By this point of the meal I was positive the chefs had drawn considerable inspiration for their menu from LA's finest pizzeria, and I have no problem with that. And if it's a coincidence, well, it's a pleasant one.
As stated earlier, Lovely's Fifty Fifty is only in its second week of business. They have lots of little kinks to work out on the menu, but I have no doubt they will, and thankfully all of the minor disappointments were just that: minor. The pizzas coming out of the oven here are very good, and I have a feeling they're only going to get better and better. Yet another reason to love this stretch of the mighty Mississippi.
RECOMMENDED: Fennel Sausage & Rapini Pizza (hold the rapini), Salted Caramel Ice Cream
Update 3/11/10 -- Went back (finally) to try the Margherita again with the new mozzarella, and was pleasantly surprised. The mozz is placed in six large dollops around the pie, one for each slice. It looks like it'd be thick and rubbery, but one bite revealed otherwise. This is soft, creamy mozzarella, and it didn't firm up by the time I got around to the last slice, either. Bravo, guys!
Also got to try a few new starters, including a butter lettuce salad with buttermilk blue cheese, sliced pears, and hazelnuts; and a cannellini bean puree with olive oil and pizza bianca. The salad was refreshing but also managed to pack in some nice flavors with just a few ingredients. The bean puree was a simple blend of white beans that tasted great with the lemony olive oil poured judiciously over it. Coupled with the ample amount of freshly baked pizza bianca (just the house pizza dough seasoned well with herbs and salt) that accompanies this dish, you really shouldn't pass it up. It's a ridiculous deal at six bucks.