Monday, October 24, 2011

Impressions: Handsome Pizza

1603 NE Killingsworth St.
Portland, OR 97211
(503) 247-7499

NOTE: These impressions, while written about Handsome Pizza's original location farther west on Killingsworth, still apply to their new location at the address above. 

[Photographs by Adam Lindsley]

Oh how things can change in a year and a half. Pizza Depokos, one of the city's bright and shining beacons of quality (and sometimes Greek-themed) wood-fired pizza, recently underwent a change of ownership. Dough guru and all-around nice guy Ethan Welt is out, and Will Fain, formerly of Portobello and a bona fide Pizza Obsessive, is in. And lucky for us, Pizza Depokos--rebranded as Handsome Pizza--is still a bright and shining beacon of quality (but not really Greek-themed) wood-fired pizza.

Fain's take on the pizza itself isn't an enormous departure from Welt's, but there are some key differences. The Greek-inspired pies are off the menu, with the za'atar (a Middle Eastern blend of thyme, oregano, and other herbs) relegated to a garlic herb flatbread. The menu now consists of six basic pies: marinara, Margherita, cheese, pepperoni, the Rico Suave (with ricotta, aged mozz, garlic, olive oil, oregano, and cracked pepper), and the Sausage y Fromage (aged mozz, fennel sausage, hot peppers, and roasted onions). He also offers a specialty pie or two, which changes daily.

I was curious to see how close Fain's pizzas hewed to the excellent vegan ones he put out at Portobello, and quite rightly I expected the quality to surpass even those with the addition of real cheese and meat. My expectations were certainly met (and exceeded) in the second regard, but in their current form the pizzas have taken a striking shift in identity that will most likely change and change again over the next year.

The current pies are Neapolitan in style. That's certainly due to the drastic switch from Portobello's gas-fired oven to the wood-devouring monster at Handsome. The Portobello pizzas were more of a Neapolitan-New York hybrid, a larger-sliced and crispier-crusted version of an otherwise classic Naples pie. Fain's still learning his new oven and experimenting with the types of wood used to heat it, so the pies coming out of it right now have that traditionally soft Neapolitan crust (UPDATE 4/9/13 - The pies now more greatly resemble New York-Neapolitan pizza than straight Neapolitan). Easily foldable for quick consumption, but lacking the crunch imparted by the gas oven, which ran at a much lower temperature than this wood-burning oven and therefore dried out the dough more as it cooked longer.

Which isn't to say the lack of crunch means this isn't great pizza, because it absolutely is. In fact, it's pretty much perfect Neapolitan pizza. So if that's what you want, get to Handsome Pizza ASAP, because Fain's continued tinkering could mean a new style in a day, a week, a month...who knows? Crunchy or soft, Fain knows how to make a good, simple crust from a good, simple dough. The oven blisters and chars the crust beautifully, making for one of the prettiest undercarriage shots I've seen in a while. Look at that thing. Gorgeous, isn't it?

His sauce is chunkier than most, almost salsa-like in texture, though certainly not in flavor. Nay, it tastes of bright, crisp tomatoes and lots of wonderful garlic. And Fain doesn't skimp on it, judging by the particularly saucy Margherita ($12) I ordered. He doesn't skimp on the basil, either, a concept many more-renowned pizzerias across the country seem to be fighting tooth and nail against. The result was a balanced, sterling example of the Margherita, but with a pronounced garlic element. I loved it. Eat it as fast as you can once it emerges from the oven for maximum pleasure.

Since Fain makes his own sausage, I had to try the Fennel Sausage y Fromage ($14). That sausage came out ground a little finer than most, and even though it was studded with fennel seeds, it tasted more strongly of pepper. Fain wasn't particularly pleased with this particular batch, but I liked that it lacked the gristly texture of many a homemade sausage. The softer nature of the sausage contrasted nicely with the sweet, crisp onions, which yielded an audible snap between the teeth. The fiery red and yellow banana peppers packed a quick wallop of heat in every other bite, which paired splendidly with the richness of the meat and islands of milky mozzarella.

Fain stressed that the pizzas are still a work-in-progress, but even so, they're of high quality and absolutely worth a visit. They cook ridiculously fast in that oven, so you can satiate your pizza cravings however quickly you can get yourself to the Killingsworth & Greeley North Station cart pod. The best part about it this particular pod? Handsome Pizza is housed in an old garage heated not only by the wood-burning oven but by overhead heat lamps, so rain, sleet, or snow, you'll never find yourself shivering as you eating your pizza. Shivering with pleasure, maybe, but not from the cold.

OVEN: Wood

RECOMMENDED: Margherita, Fennel Sausage y Fromage (probably the others as well, but I haven't tried them yet)