Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Impressions: Dove Vivi

2727 NE Glisan St.
Portland, OR 97232
(503) 239-4444

[Photographs: Adam Lindsley]
Typically, using the words “cornmeal” and “pizza” in the same sentence is a surefire way to send my attention scurrying elsewhere. It isn’t that I dislike deep-dish pizza, it’s just that I’ve never had one that I thought was anywhere near comparable in quality to pizza made with a dough of traditional wheat flour and yeast. Part of the problem comes with comparing the two in the first place, the crowbar separation between conventional pizza and deep-dish pies--particularly those of the Chicago persuasion--and the generalization of lumping it all together. And while Dove Vivi doesn’t revolutionize cornmeal crust pizza, it takes it in a direction that, for the most part, I find preferable to most deep-dish gut bombs and their ilk.

Perhaps the most important distinction between a regular cornmeal crust pizza and the crust served at Dove Vivi is that Dove Vivi’s crust is not, in fact, strictly cornmeal. Rather, it’s a blend of cornmeal and Shepherd’s Grain wheat flour, well-salted and buttery in flavor.

It’s a great crust. And it should be, given that owners Gavin and Delane Blackstock are the third generation to make use of it; it has been passed down to them after serving time in San Francisco’s Vicolo and L.A.’s Zelo restaurants. Dove Vivi parbakes over 100 of them (which start out as 19-ounce balls of dough) in an oven cranked to 600 degrees ahead of the dinner hour, as you can see when you walk in the door:

Those beauties then get baked for up to 15 additional minutes when the toppings are piled in. The result has the soft, chewy interior of homemade shortbread and the crunchy exterior of cornbread cooked in a cast-iron skillet. It doesn’t crumble like cornbread, though, maintaining its structure and withstanding the not-insubstantial payload of toppings admirably.

So now that we’ve established that this is a crust worthy of your time, what about what goes in the crust? Is that any good? Well, it really depends on the pizza.

What sounded great on paper but didn’t come off nearly as well as I’d hoped was the Sausage & Peppers pizza (all pizzas are 12” and are priced at $4.25/slice, $11.50/half, $22.50/whole). For this pie, Dove Vivi fills that wonderful crust with aged mozzarella, house-made fennel sausage, caramelized onions, marinated green peppers, and tomato sauce. I wasn’t kidding when I said it sounded great, was I?

Unfortunately, the pie, as prepared on this visit, wanted for flavor. The large, bright red hunks of tomato that comprised the “sauce” were heavily herbed and had a stewed quality to them, but I was surprised to find that they really didn’t taste like much. It felt as though everything about the flavors in the tomatoes--the acidity, the brightness, even the herbs--had been toned down. Same goes for the sausage, which despite the ample presence of fennel seeds could barely shout over the competing toppings. The onions, when plucked and eaten separately from the slice, had a nice softness and mild sweetness to them, but caramelized they were not; more like heavily sweated (see the fennel sausage & onions pizza at Ken's for properly caramelized onions). I liked that the green peppers were marinated to lessen both the crunch and the sometimes-too-bitter-for-me overtones of raw green peppers, but yet again, there just wasn't much flavor there.

The same could not be said for the Goat Cheese pizza, which got just about everything right. Goat cheese and mozzarella comprised the bulk of the toppings, and while that sounds like the very definition of rich & heavy, it wasn’t overwhelmingly so. Sure, there’s quite a lot of goat cheese on each of these slices, but it pairs very well with the crust and its richness is cut by the acids in the huge slab of marinated tomato resting over the slice. That tomato triumphed where the tomato “sauce” on the Sausage & Peppers pizza failed: it was juicy, bright, and a little sweet. A better foil for thick, creamy goat cheese you couldn’t ask for. The marinated green peppers made a second appearance here, bringing only the same muted flavors they brought to the  Sausage & Peppers pizza, but the addition of rosemary was a subtle touch that added some complexity to this pizza’s flavor profile.

This is hearty, hearty pizza, about half the thickness of Chicago-style pizza but just as filling (two slices will do most people in). I appreciate the way Dove Vivi embraces unusual toppings, because let’s be honest, this is unusual pizza that probably won’t scratch your “pizza itch,” although it is certainly satisfying. I for one am looking forward to returning for the pie with fresh sweet corn and smoked mozzarella.


RECOMMENDED: Goat Cheese pizza

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Impressions: Serious Pizza Plus

Serious Pizza Plus
244 Robert Gray Drive SW
Ilwaco, WA 98624
(360) 642-3060

[Photographs: Adam Lindsley]
Growing up in a small town in the southwest corner of Washington State on a 28-mile finger of land known as the Long Beach Peninsula meant one thing as a pizza-lover: pure misery.

Many tried to bring pizza to our tiny string of hamlets over the years, but no one did it successfully, and only one spot (Chico’s, which maybe I’ll review someday if I’m bored) has really survived the harsh economic reality of business on the Long Beach Peninsula: three months of feast thanks to summertime tourists galore and nine months of famine in a cold rain-and-sea-spray-soaked vellum. In fact, with the exception of the inimitably good maple bars at the Cottage Bakery in downtown Long Beach, I have zero recollection of any great food ever being served to me in a restaurant on the peninsula during my youth, let alone great pizza. The sad fact is that a drive across the river into Astoria, Oregon, was a real treat, because it meant a visit to Pizza Hut. Pizza Hut! That’s how dire the culinary scene was (and, to a large degree, remains) in Long Beach.

So imagine my surprise when I heard that someone had opened a tiny food stand in my old hometown. And not just a food stand, but one serving pizza. And not just any pizza, but wood-fired pizza. My mind could barely compute this information; black was white, up was down, left was right. I knew I had to try Serious Pizza Plus as soon as possible.

My first attempt did not go successfully; Serious Pizza Plus is not open in the winter months, which makes sense, given that it’s smack dab in the middle of beautiful Cape Disappointment State Park’s campground. Its business relies mainly on walk-up orders from the surrounding campers, and few visitors prefer to spend their Decembers shuddering in a tent a stone’s throw from the frothing maw of the Pacific Ocean.

A recent July afternoon visit, however, proved fruitful, with owner Jim Chrietzberg and his wife Chi taking orders and making pies as fast as they could for the impressive crowd out front. While I stood around snapping photos, I can’t tell you how many people came up to Jim after finishing their meal to tell him how wonderful the food was and how they were going to return that evening for dinner. The Chrietzbergs have done a fantastic job of culling the affection of park regulars (this is their third year at the site) with their relaxed and friendly demeanor, the obvious pleasure they take in what they do, and their actual pizza, of course.

Oh yes, the pizza, that’s what you’re here to read about, isn’t it? Well rest assured, this pizza stand in an out-of-the-way state park is no mere gimmick: Jim and Chi are putting out the real deal. This is good-quality wood-fired pizza made from a properly salted, fermented dough that gets a lightly charred and crisp exterior that crackles audibly as it gives way to its soft crumb. The tomato sauce has a bright quality to it and a hint of garlic, and the fresh mozzarella is appropriately milky and properly melted (a point I note after my experience at Una Pizza Napoletana). With the final addition of basil chiffonade this becomes one solid Margherita ($20), not just good for a state park, but good for anywhere.

Pies come in two sizes: single-serving 8-inch and feed-the-family 15-inch. Most of the larger pizzas run $20-$25, and yes, they can do half-and-half. Unless you have a favorite, half-and-half is the way to go if you want to have any hope of getting through the substantial menu before the season ends. Also, the 8-inch pies, quite frankly, are only going to leave you hungry and send you back in line for a second pizza.

Beyond the Margherita, I also sampled the Earth Pie, the Pepperoni, and the Meat Lover. The Earth Pie ($23) would never have been my first choice at any pizzeria, simply because of the addition of raw sliced tomatoes, but Jim gave it his strongest recommendation, so I bit. The thickly sliced tomatoes adorn a base of garlic, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, gorgonzola, red onions, and basil. With Jim’s suggestion to sprinkle a little sea salt over the tomatoes, the pie became more than palatable; it was actually quite delicious. Texturally I still find it somewhat awkward to eat sliced tomatoes on a pizza, but the palate of flavors presented with them on this pie makes it worthwhile.

It’s been a while since I've had as good an interpretation of the classic Pepperoni Pizza ($21) as the one I had at Serious Pizza Plus. The key here is good pepperoni that actually has some heat to it, without being overwhelmingly spicy. I also prefer my pepperoni sliced paper thin; that way it crisps up in the oven and doesn’t transform into goblets of grease (I also like that kind of pepperoni, by the way, just not as much). There’s a lot of flavor packed into those salty, oily discs, which is why this was far and away my favorite pie of the day.

The pepperoni makes another appearance on the Meat Lover ($25), though it’s half-hidden beneath a smattering of sausage, Canadian bacon, red onions, olives, and fresh mushrooms. I don’t mind “supreme” pizzas but they’re never my favorite, and while I think the simplicity of the Pepperoni pizza surpasses this pie, it’s still well executed and very much worth your time and money, if this is the style you crave.

A perusal of the User Reviews on Yelp (a site comparable to a rupturing wart but the only source of online information I could find for this place) reveals that “the best pizza I’ve ever had” is not an uncommon reaction to Serious Pizza Plus, especially for Southwest Washingtonians. It’s obvious why. Long Beach set the bar ludicrously low long ago, but the Chrietzbergs weren’t content with maintaining the status quo, and they have singlehandedly surpassed decades of competition without batting an eye.

OVEN: Wood

RECOMMENDED: Large Pepperoni Pizza

NOTE: A Discover Pass is required for parking in Cape Disappointment State Park, but if you’re only there to order/pick-up pizza, don’t bother stopping at the ranger’s station; just drive right through, park in the short-term parking, grab your pie, and split.