Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Impressions: Nostrana

1401 SE Morrison St
Portland, OR 97214
(503) 234-2427
(photo: rommelarch.com)

For the longest time, I didn't give Nostrana a fair shake. My one and only visit there transpired eight months ago after a long evening of revelry and gluttony at Apizza Scholls with Slice Editor-in-Chief Adam Kuban. Kuban was doing research for the colossal Pizza Madness project he was undertaking for Rachael Ray Magazine, and in the interest of being thorough decided to squeeze in Nostrana after our sublime meal at Brian Spangler's den of iniquity restaurant. My words then were not particularly kind: bland crust and thick mozzarella, but decent sauce.

(photo: nostrana.com)

Convinced by others that Nostrana needed a second look, I finally caved to the pressure and brought along three friends to what would ultimately become an enjoyable dinner, in which we would be served two good pizzas, one very good pizza, and one terrible pizza. But I'll get to that in a moment.

(all other photographs by Adam Lindsley unless otherwise noted)

While waiting for the pies, we were served complimentary bread and focaccia with olive oil, and a salad. The bread is baked in-house by baker Giana Bernardini and has a nice yeasty flavor and open crumb. The focaccia was springy and nicely seasoned with sea salt and herbs. Both just begged for a swim with the accompanying olive oil.

(photo: Christa Engelskirch)
Our salad, the Insalata mista ($9), was a bit of a joke. Served in a small mixing bowl, it consisted of lettuces, carrots, red onion, jicama, and cherry tomatoes. Well, one-and-a-half cherry tomatoes. Extra virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar is served on the side, so you have to toss the salad yourself. The whole thing feels slapped together, and at nine dollars is overpriced.

Click any photo to enlarge
The first pizza I tried happened to be the "one terrible pizza" I mentioned earlier: the Margherita ($11). Certain aspects of it were exactly the same as the Margherita I had tried with Adam Kuban the previous year: the crust was still bland and the sauce was still good, the classic crushed plum tomatoes unadorned by unnecessary seasoning. The basil was actually very well distributed and had a strong presence, which I appreciated, as basil is so often an afterthought to pizzaioli. The oven's flames had licked the crust judiciously, leaving plenty of raised blisters on the cornicione and char on the underside. The dough had been stretched paper thin, as is the custom with these very Neapolitan-style pies.

But something was different about the pie from the one I ate on my previous visit, and it was the fresh mozzarella. At some point in the oven the cheese broke down and formed ricotta, which is what often happens when the curd is too wet. This actually happened on three of the four pies served to us that night, to varying degrees, but the Margherita got the worst of it. The texture was all wrong, and actually had a very similar mouthfeel to the early Margheritas being served at Lovely's Fifty Fifty (before they sorted out their curd problem). We just couldn't get past the grainy texture of the disintegrated cheese, and it totally ruined the pizza.

Considerably better was the Diavola ($15), the most expensive pie on the menu (take that, Serious Pie). Here the sausage and Mama Lil's peppers pack a kick that isn't anything close to spicy, but provide just enough oomph to make the flavors tingle on the tongue without burning your mouth. These two components worked so well together (as Mama Lil's peppers always seem to do when paired with some kind of meat) that I didn't mind the fact that the mozzarella resting beneath them was in the early stages of ricotta degeneration.

Also tasty was the Sofia ($11), a sauceless pizza topped with potatoes, shaved pecorino sardo, a very light sprinkling of chopped rosemary, and a generous drizzle of olive oil. The potatoes on the Sofia are sliced potato chip-thin, but stay soft and don't get tough or crispy in Nostrana's wood-burning Mugnaini oven. It feels like a lighter rendition of the potato pizza sold at Mozza in Los Angeles, probably due to the fact that there is no gorgonzola dolce on the Nostrana version. I liked it; it was a pleasant respite from the meat and red sauce of the other three pizzas.

My favorite pie of the evening, by a mile, was the Affumicato ($14). On a base of tomato sauce, the pie is topped with smoked mozzarella, red onion, rosemary, and prosciutto di San Daniele. I loved two things about this pizza: the strong rosemary flavor, and the fact that the prosciutto had been placed on the pie before it entered the oven, rather than afterward, as is the standard way of serving prosciutto on pizza. The prosciutto shriveled into little nuggets in the oven and gave way to a very pleasing crunch when bitten into. I didn't taste the smoked mozzarella at all, but the rosemary and prosciutto were so delicious that I didn't really care.

(photo: Christa Engelskirch)
When the dessert menus were passed around, there was only one choice: Pizzeria Mozza's Butterscotch Budino ($7). I have no idea if Nostrana owner and chef Cathy Whims knows Nancy Silverton or Mario Batali, but my guess is that she either does or has such tremendous respect for their sinfully delicious Italian pudding that she decided to name her version after their restaurant. And indeed, the Nostrana budino is just about as good as Mozza's. Thick, creamy butterscotch pudding is blended with coarse sea salt and topped with a dark caramel so irresistible that I took two or three bites before realizing I hadn't photographed it yet. The salt really is the key to this dessert's greatness. It accentuates the core flavor of the butterscotch and keeps the dish from succumbing to sugar overload. Portion size is pretty small, though, so make sure you order your own if you're dining with a group.

A few aspects of the meal could have been improved. Three of the four pizzas had spent too much time in the oven, pushing the needle well past "charred" to the "full-on burnt" end of the gauge (see the shot of the Affumicato three pics up). Those ominous charcoal blisters looked like the husks of torched biodomes and crumbled to dust at the slightest touch. I didn't get a photograph of it, but a large section of the bottom of the Diavola was completely black, with a layer of carbon that tasted like burnt toast. These pies are also very wet, so even though scissors are provided (which makes slice division a relatively easy task), I recommend you eat Nostrana's pizzas as the Italians would: with a knife and fork. The crust is just too thin to hold up as a slice, but if you insist on eating your pizza this way, prepare for major tip sag.

(photo: Christa Engelskirch)
The meal exceeded my expectations for the most part, and on a different night--perhaps when the restaurant wasn't getting as slammed as it was tonight--the mishaps might have been avoided and the food could have come out of the kitchen even closer to perfect. I'd like to go back and try a few of their non-pizza dishes, which looked mouthwateringly good when carried past our table. In the meantime, though, I'll have to concede that Nostrana makes a solid pie, and with proper mozzarella curd, a very good one.

OVEN: Wood

RECOMMENDED: Affumicato pizza


  1. I only remember trying their margherita and my opinion is the same. Their sauce is fantastically simple and tasty. It's maybe one of the best sauces I've had. Just pretty much delicious tomato-y goodness. Not too wet, not too thick.

    I just don't get why their crust is so bland. Would it kill them to add a little salt? Seriously...

  2. In all the pizzas I've had there, I've never had ones blackened as you say. Though, I've seen a decent amount of turnover in who is manning the oven and consistent cooking comes from consistent cooks.

  3. @extramsg: Yeah, the first one that I had there with Kuban in 2009 was cooked perfectly, but they were really getting slammed on this visit, so much so that huge gaps of time passed between visits from our server. This batch of pies was definitely sloppier. One half would be cooked just right, but the other half would be torched on the bottom. It didn't make them totally inedible, just a little carbon-tasting. The biggest problem was the mozz curd. But except for the Marg, I liked all the pizzas here.

  4. Pizza and ice cream guyAugust 9, 2010 at 12:50 PM

    I have eaten at Nostrana's a couple of times and each time was not very impressed. However, I ate at Apizza Scholls yesterday and ordered the bacon pizza...WOW! I was expecting crumbled bacon on it. Instead, perfectly cooked whole slices of bacon were on each slice of pizza. Thin sliced bacon that was nice and fatty. It's hard to find fatty bacon. Nowadays, farmers are growing it too lean. If I want healthy and lean, I'll eat tuna out of the can. This bacon was perfection. After pizza, went home and ate some home-made malt ice cream with Theo chocolate shavings.

  5. @Pizza and ice cream guy: I would agree that Apizza Scholls is in a whole other league from Nostrana, and if you compare the two, Nostrana will inevitably let you down. On the other hand, Nostrana's better than 90% of the pizza in Portland, so I still recommend it. That malt ice cream sounds awesome, by the way.