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)


  1. Mmmmmmm great pizza! I love your blog Adam, have a nice day!!!

  2. sounds like i need to wait a bit to check this one out.. the soft undercarriage and salsa sauce sound like turnoffs to me. Surprised you don't think this looks just like Portobello's old pies.. Looks just like em to me!

  3. Just to be clear, it doesn't taste like salsa, it just has that kind of chunkier texture. And none of the ones I had at Portobello had this kind of charring.

    Plus, there's real meat and cheese on these! Automatic bump in quality right there.

    If you like Neapolitan pizza, these are spot-on Neapolitan pies. If you don't, then yeah, I'd wait to see if the style changes at all as Will masters that oven.

  4. Making pizza is good for us to know on how to make it. I love this kind of post that they stated the great information and given the right instructions. For sure, a lot of us can learn about his. Hope I could!

  5. Sauce looks like hand-crushed tomatoes -- what I'd expect if he's not running them through a food mill or if he's just minimally handling them. The crust looks beautiful. Relieved that the yellow on that sausage pie was banana peppers and not plastic-y cheddar. ;)

  6. Tomatoes are San Benito. Cali grown and certified organic and slave labor-free. Honestly, they aren't the highest quality in terms of texture or flavor—they're about the toughest tomatoes I've come across, so I end up running 'em through the food processor. It's a sacrifice I make for a cleaner conscience. The flavor, while not the best, is good though.

    I'm still working on sourcing ingredients. It's a slower process than I originally though it'd be.

  7. @Flushy: They're still pretty darn good (or at least they are after you do whatever it is you do to them). And I like the chunkier texture of the sauce, kind of a nice departure from most places that puree it a little finer. Gives you a bit more to chew on.

  8. Thanks. Ya. I like a little more texture to my sauce as well. Even if I change my tomatoes, I still plan on leaving a tiny bit of chunkiness to it.

  9. Great review, and kudos to Will for his passion. I try to go often, always enjoy the food - now if we could just get a few more sunny days......... The creativity Will brings to his business is very much appreciated.

  10. @Anonymous: The nice thing about Will's place is that you don't need a sunny day. He's got heated indoor seating!

  11. Haven't been back for over a year. Ethan changed his own vision some time ago. He thought that people weren't getting enough value for their money and subsquently added more toppings. The result, although very tasty put the pizza out of balance in my opinion. The beautiful crispy crust got soft too quickly. To me, the crust defines the pizza. If I read your description correctly, the "problem" may still remain; a wonderfully flavorful pizza, but lacking in the requisite texture.
    Thanks for your work as always.

  12. @Ciaofun: Will mentioned that he was working on getting the crust more crisp, but I haven't been back to check yet. When that happens, I'll let you know. Regardless of how soft or crisp it is, the pizza is great and worth a visit.

  13. Was lucky enough to attend one of Will's pizza making class, and, no pun intended, Will is in a class of his own. He knows what he's doing, has passion for the quality and substance pizza can deliver, and is creative with the side dishes he also offers. His place shouldn't be missed no matter what time of year.

  14. Wow! This pizza look superb!

    Comment by Make Badipizza

  15. Time to re-visit these guys, Adam. Unfortunately, the quality of the crust is nowhere near what we were getting on Greeley.

  16. @Ciaofun: Wow, really? I haven't had time to make it up to the new location, but they only opened a couple weeks ago, so maybe they're still dialing it in. I'll be hitting it within the next week, though, so I'll see what's what!

  17. @Ciaofun: I checked it out last week. I didn't see any noticeable difference in the quality of the crust, but they're still dialing in their new oven, so it perhaps wasn't as charred on top as it would be normally. Flavor-wise, though, it tasted the same to me.