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.