Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Impressions: Pronto Pizza

16050 SE 82nd Dr.
Clackamas, OR 97015
(503) 655-5094

[Photographs: Adam Lindsley]
Dangling from the far southeast corner of Portland, the suburb of Clackamas receives little but derision—if not outright indifference—from “serious” eaters to the north. But while its culinary reputation may not be as impeccable as Portland's, I can attest that Clackamas is taking major steps in the right direction, if my visit to Pronto Pizza was any indication.

Pronto’s website touts a “local twist” on three classic pizza styles: New York, New Haven, and Neapolitan. Eschewing the increasingly popular wood-fired oven for one powered by gas, Pronto’s owners aim to fill a gaping void in the Clackamas food scene by bringing quality pizza to an area long bereft of it. Chris Whaley helms the kitchen with an impressive pedigree, having earned his stripes as pizzaiolo in San Francisco’s Zero Zero and Pizzeria Picco.

Unlike the traditional pizza at either of those heralded restaurants, the pies at Pronto are an amalgam of the aforementioned trio of styles. The Margherita arrived with a strictly Neapolitan sauce, bright tomatoes unadorned with anything other than salt that I could detect. Also traditional: fresh mozzarella and basil, though the use of a basil chiffonade was unfortunate, as slicing basil into shreds has the peculiar effect of reducing its flavor and impact, especially on pizza. On the plus side, thin-sliced garlic (think Goodfellas) was a nice addition.

The crust is where we step off the Neapolitan Express. Strikingly blond with little char, I automatically assumed the pie was undercooked, but the first bite revealed a crisp crust the texture of New York- or New Haven-style pies, more than sturdy enough to support the carefully proportioned toppings. Too bad that crust didn’t taste like much. Handsome Pizza owner Will Fain was along for the ride to help me plow through all these pies, and he guessed the dough was a bit young and didn’t have time for much flavor to develop.

Despite the unusual presence of roasted zucchini slices, the Sellwood was more flavorful than the Margherita and a stronger pizza overall. In addition to zucchini, this white pie is topped with roasted red peppers, mushrooms, caramelized onions, and arugula. While veggie-centric pizza isn’t typically my bag, the toppings were deftly applied without one item overpowering another. The arugula in particular worked well to cut the richness of the cheese and really made this pie for me.

Whenever I see housemade sausage on a pizzeria’s menu, a seven-nation army couldn’t stop me from ordering it. Pronto’s was crumbled over the pizza rather than placed in chunks and tasted appropriately porky, though I do wish some fennel seeds had been added for the notes of anise I cherish. Lack of fennel aside, the sausage paired delightfully with Pronto’s Calabrian chiles, which brought a pleasantly warm level of heat. On Pronto’s “build-your-own” pies, like this one, aged mozz comes standard instead of fresh, so the comparisons to Neapolitan pizza don’t really apply here. Unfortunately, the crust on this one was twice as thick as the other two, resulting in limp slices, but the char on the end crust was a welcome sight.

Pronto isn’t making earth-shatteringly great pizza; not yet, anyway. But when it comes to pizza in Clackamas, beggars can’t be choosers, and the fact remains that you won’t find a better pie in the whole town. A few tweaks here and there (a longer ferment on the dough, more even crust formation, a pinch more salt) will take them to the next level. Until then, this is still solid pizza worth stopping for if you need a bite in the area.


RECOMMENDED: Sausage and Calabrian Chile Pizza

Addendum (10/16/13) - Michael Russell of The Oregonian reports that pizzaiolo Chris Whaley acted only as a consultant at Pronto Pizza and is not actively in the kitchen there. In fact, he will be opening a restaurant on SE Division called The American Local in the former Caffe Pallino space. Hopefully he'll be serving pizza there, and if so, I'll be there to check it out!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Impressions: Baby Doll Pizza

Baby Doll Pizza
2835 SE Stark St.
Portland, OR 97214
(503) 459-4450

[Photographs: Adam Lindsley]
I gave up on New York-style pizza in Portland years ago. The big slices, the thin one in town bothered to strive for anything above mediocrity (Hotlips, Pizzicato), and even some of those I found mildly worthwhile (Sizzle Pie) have nose-dived in quality lately.

Then along came Baby Doll Pizza.

What separates this place from the myriad other NY-style pizza joints in the city? Could it be owner Travis Miranda’s training at the Culinary Institute of America (which has turned out such nationally renown chefs as the Michaels Symon and Ruhlman)? Maybe, although culinary training has in no way proved a direct corollary to excellent food. You have to have the fire in you, the refusal to be satisfied with the status quo, and the drive to produce something of real quality. That’s what I think’s running the ship at Baby Doll, which makes the best NY-style pizza I’ve had in Portland.

One of the big things that sets this pizza apart from its local competitors is the sauce. It's the first thing I tasted when biting into one of Baby Doll’s cheese slices, and it's excellent. Most other sauces on NY-style pizzas are too sweet, too salty, or overherbed (like most canned versions). Baby Doll prefers a sauce closer to fresh tomatoes. There's a little salt, fresh garlic, and basil in there, but not much. The organic California tomatoes really shine on their own, which is good, because most of the saltiness is delivered via the grated parmesan and the potently cheesy whole-milk mozzarella (which contains a small amount of buffalo milk, incidentally). I will say that the herbacity of the sauce has varied somewhat from one day to the next, but luckily never too far from the perfect notes hit on my first visit to the pizzeria.

My order on that inaugural visit (which produced the photos you see here) included a whole pie: half cheese, half pepperoni and house sausage. While I preferred the cheese slices (if for no other reason than the sauce had less to compete with and therefore shined all the more), the meaty half of the pizza was no slouch. Their pepperoni was a bit on the mild side for me, but I liked their house sausage; it won’t give Apizza Scholls’s a run for its money, but it’s pleasantly porky and crumbled to cover the pie more evenly. A little more fennel seed would improve it further, because the best bites included that unmistakable hit of anise. This half of the pizza wasn't all that greasy, which really surprised me. Not even the curled-up pepperoni turned into the typical chalices of oil in the heat of the oven. It was nice not having to worry about a stream of grease running off the back of the folded slice and down my arm.

The weakest aspect of Baby Doll Pizza is clearly the crust, which is a standard, dense, bland affair. I wouldn't salt it any more than they already do, though, because the saltiness level of the pizza as a whole is pretty perfect as is. However I wouldn't blame you for not finishing these end crusts, because they're very bready and just not that interesting. The crust is the one thing keeping this pizza in the “very good” category instead of “great.”

Apparently, if you order a whole pizza, Baby Doll places a free garlic knot on the center of the pie to prevent the box from bowing and dipping into the cheese. I almost never order garlic knots because I want to save room for more slices, but I liked this one, mostly because it didn't taste like it was infused with garlic powder. A nice (and functional) addition to an already delicious meal.

Like pretty much all pizza, Baby Doll’s slices suffer considerably once they’ve cooled down and been reheated. The sauce in particular takes the biggest hit; once it reaches room temperature it comes off far more herbed than it does hot. But that’s a weakness of every pizza I’ve ever eaten, so Baby Doll should not be singled out for it. To-go slices are similarly less impressive than slices from a freshly baked whole pie, so go big when you can, and remember the words of someone wiser than myself (I’m paraphrasing here because I cannot remember where it originated): “Pizza starts dying as soon as it leaves the oven.”

New York-style pizza is not a rarity in Portland, but good New York-style pizza? That’s something special. Baby Doll Pizza, even with a boring crust, has raised the (admittedly low) bar on this style of pizza here. If you’re ordering a whole pie, it worth going out of your way for.


RECOMMENDED: Cheese pizza, house sausage pizza

Addendum (10/21/13): Many subsequent visits to Baby Doll have proved just how wildly inconsistent it is. Some days the pizza is terrific, other days very mediocre. More often than not the pizza's good, but I recently took some pizza-loving friends on their inaugural visit and our pie was really disappointing. Over-cheesed, limp crust...just not the Baby Doll I tout as the best NY-style pizza in Portland. I really want you to succeed, but you gotta step it up, guys.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Impressions: Lovely's Fifty-Fifty (ala Sarah Minnick)

4039 N Mississippi Ave
Portland, OR 97217
(503) 281-4060

[Photographs by Adam Lindsley]
(NOTE: This is an update of a previous review; see the original here.)

You may or may not know it, depending on how obsessively you follow restaurant news, but longtime Lovely’s Fifty-Fifty (and prior to that, Lovely Hula Hands) chef Jimmy Albee left his heralded post last year, much to dismay of those who, like me, considered the restaurant one of the finest pizzerias in the city. The big question on my mind: Would the quality of the pizza at Lovely’s suffer in his absence?

Early reports from friends and colleagues answered with a resounding YES. I’ll spare the specific invectives, but suffice it to say that my hopes for keeping Lovely’s Fifty-Fifty on the list of can’t-miss pizzerias in Portland were on life support at best, and six feet under at worst.

A few months later, I started hearing a different tune on the wind. “The pizza’s good. Real good,” a friend assured me. “You’ve gotta go try it again.” Through Handsome Pizza owner Will Fain, I met a young chef named Matt Kedzie, who has been manning the oven at Lovely’s for quite a while. Matt informed me that Lovely’s Fifty-Fifty co-owner Sarah Minnick was heading up the kitchen now and that the crust had undergone a major transformation: it was now 100% naturally leavened. Specifically, Minnick was using a sourdough starter (also known as a “levain”) in place of commercial yeast. True sourdough crusts in Portland are a rarity, so I knew it was time to take the Lovely’s Fifty-Fifty Mark II plunge.

What a relief, then, that the pizza actually turned out to be great. While quite different from Albee’s (both the crust and sauce have noticeably changed), Minnick’s pizza is still very much worthy of your time and money.

Take the crust, the biggest step in evolution from the Lovely’s Fifty-Fifty of old. By the end of his tenure at the restaurant, Albee’s crust had evolved into an enormously puffy thing around the rim, filled with gaping caverns and tenuous strands of gluten stretching from top to bottom like stalactites and stalagmites meeting in the middle. Minnick’s crust, by contrast, is far less airy, though by no means flat or dense. Break it open, hold it up to your nose, and inhale, and you’ll catch the faintly sour scent of the levain; it’s quite wonderful. Bite into it and the sourdough makes itself known without slamming your tongue with a vinegar freight train like, say, a loaf from any bakery along San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. Profoundly different from their previous crust, but just as good, for separate reasons.

While the crust has increased in complexity, the tomato sauce has been simplified. The previous iteration was a blend of San Marzanos and California 6-in-1s, along with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Minnick scaled back to just the San Marzanos, olive oil, and salt, resulting in a brighter and lighter sauce overall that pairs better with the new sourdough crust.

Were I a bottomless pit of cash I would have tried every pie on the new menu, but because I’m still waiting for a financial windfall I only tried the housemade fennel sausage pizza with braising greens and rosemary ($16). It was excellent. World-class sausage spiked with pepper and fennel seems to be a particular strength of Portland pizzerias (see Apizza Scholls and Kindle Kart for just two phenomenal examples), and Lovely’s Fifty-Fifty’s version maintains this high standard. I’ve had rosemary on plenty of white pies before, but never to my knowledge on a red sauce pizza, and I thought it was a splendid foil for the rich, porky hunks of sausage.

The big surprise of this pie came from the braising greens, a mix of various leafy vegetables such as collard and mustard greens. Collard greens from most barbecue joints are a good comparison, as certain bites were dominated by the flavors of that classic Southern dish. Again, not a flavor I would have expected to find on a sausage pie with red sauce, but one that made me wish more pizzerias would give it a chance.

Minnick’s creativity with toppings and her desire to branch out from the norm has sparked some controversy in the decision whether or not to include a Margherita on the menu. In an interview with Eater PDX last May, she stated, “We have an ongoing debate about the Margherita, and I’m so tempted to take it off the menu. It’s one of the most ordered pizzas, but I feel bad when people order two Margheritas because it’s so sad, I want them to get a different one, there are so many other delicious pizzas to get.” In the absence of Albee, the presumed dissenter here, the kitchen has gone ahead and cut the Margherita from the menu.

While I fully sympathize with Minnick’s frustration toward diners who order two of the same pizza, I do wish the Margherita hadn’t been stricken from the menu entirely. The Margherita is the benchmark pizza many pizza geeks like me measure against other pizzerias’ versions, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who’ll be disappointed to see that it’s been banished here. That said, I’ll wager the kitchen will make you one if you ask nicely for it.

I worried Lovely’s Fifty-Fifty would forever falter with former pizzaiolo Albee’s departure, but based on this meal, the kitchen is in very good hands. If you’ve been putting off a return visit here, or even a first visit, wait no longer. Lovely’s is great once again.

OVEN: Wood

RECOMMENDED: Housemade fennel sausage with braising greens and rosemary