I grew up on Pizza Hut and that kind of stuff - didn't know any better. When people talked about it not being real pizza, I never understood that. When I was in college Domino's was literally a block from my dorm and had special deals on one-toppings; I can't tell you how many late-night phone calls we made to that place to order pizza while we watched movies and drank beer. It was a lot.
After we got out of the dorms, my junior and senior years, we used Pizza Pipeline a lot - they had a great deal of a pizza and two drinks for $8 or something. The pizza wasn't great, but it was good enough, and it was better than Domino's.
At this point in my life I didn't really understand what good pizza was. Then, the summer between my junior and senior years in college, I went to Italy and lived in Perugia for a summer, studying Italian. I knew the first time I stepped into a restaurant there I was ordering pizza. I mean, what else would I get?
In Italy the toppings are much more basic than what we commonly get in the U.S. There is no Hawaiian (to me, that was sad) and no such thing as pepperoni (actually doesn't even exist in Italy). The toppings are simpler and limited, the sauce is much lighter, the cheese not liberally layered on, and the crust is thinner.
The first pizza I ordered was a quattro formaggi (four cheese) and I was really thrown at first. There was no tomato sauce! At this point in my life I couldn't even comprehend the idea of pizza without red sauce... At the same time, it was the best pizza I had ever had in my life - no joke.
Over the course of my two months in Italy I tried a lot of pizza. A lot. I probably ate it 4-5 times a week and had some favorites in Perugia - at places I no longer remember the names of. I also learned about the simple wonders of the margherita pizza (cheese, roma tomatoes, basil) and that the best pizza comes from down south in Napoli (Naples).
If you have read the book Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, you'll know what I'm talking about. In the book, during the Eat portion where she spent four months in Italy, she goes to a place in Napoli that is supposed to be the best pizza in the world and is blown away. That was my experience too.. I don't think I went to the same place, but it was perhaps the most memorable meal I had in two months.
One of my roommates had been to Italy before and took a few of us to this place. Napoli isn't the most welcoming city in the world for tourists, but if you know where you are going, you will be rewarded. I was hopelessly lost as Max weaved us through neighborhoods and down streets probably not wide enough to handle my old Honda Accord, let alone a SUV. We stuck out like sore thumbs as Americans, with the locals keeping an eye on us as we walked by.
When we finally arrived at the place, it was tiny. Two tables, in the front portion of what I am pretty sure was a home. From what I recall - and my memory is a bit dim since it was over ten years ago - there were only two options to order, and we got one of each to share. The toppings were fresh and fantastic, just as they always were in Italy - but it was the crust that was the revelation. The dough was the perfect amount of chewiness, cooked just to a crisp without burning, and left your stomach so happy you could literally eat this for days - and damn the consequences.
What's the point of all of this? It's just a way of establishing credentials, so you know where I'm coming from if I say I like a pizza or don't like it. I'm not one of those who will call something bad if it doesn't live up to the legacy of Italian pizza - good food is good food. However, I probably approach pizza from an Italian point of view. That could be why I'm not exactly excited by the thought of Chicago-style (though I have never been outside of Chicago's airport and would absolutely try it) and no longer can accept the standard American-style pizza as even edible.
Still, when people whose opinions I have come to respect tell me there are places to have excellent pizza in Portland, I'm going to listen. Pizza has become huge in the city with chains like Pizzicato and Pizza Schmizza - both pretty good, but not excellent - sprouting up around town like randy bunny rabbits.
There are a few other places that have received rave reviews from Portland's foodie nation, places like Nostrana and Al Forno Ferruzza (which are absolutely on the list of places we need to check out), but we have recently been able to check out two of the biggies - Apizza Scholls and Ken's Artisan Pizza, both in Southeast Portland.
The recommendation was to get to this SE Hawthorne pizza place right at opening, at 5pm, because they are always busy and they don't always stay open until closing time - if they run out of dough, that's it. It seems they have changed a little bit so that the dough is no longer so finite, but it's still crazy busy. We got there at about 4:50 on a weekday (I think it was Thursday) and the line outside the door was already 10 deep. Thankfully, that meant we still were seated immediately when it opened. (If it's important, Anthony Bourdain stopped by here on the Pacific Northwest episode of No Reservations.)
We ordered the Apizza Amore with the hot capicollo (smoked pork shoulder) and it was excellent (it was a big pizza too!). The crust was not classic Italian, but rather more of a well done American style - and that's not a knock in the least. The capicollo was fantastic, a nice kick but not too hot. I also ordered an Anchor Porter, which I had never had before and found it to be just as good as my favorite Deschutes Black Butte Porter - something else to keep my eye out for.
It took about a half hour to get our food - we weren't first on the list - but it's a comfortable place. If you do have to wait, there is a bar where you can get a drink while you wait for a table, or even order to go. I would absolutely recommend this and Wifey and I will be going back at some point.
Ken's Artisan Pizza
Wifey and I hit this place up on a Wednesday night after the general dinner time, thinking that even if it was still busy we could get food to go (which they only do Tuesday-Thursday). As we walked in I noticed it definitely did not have a pizzeria vibe; everyone was drinking wine, which while it's a nice fit with pizza just seems wrong to my American sensibilities, you know? Maybe I'm just not immersed enough in the culture of wine - working on that.
It was also definitely busy. The hostess took our name and said it would be a 20 minute wait, so we asked if we could order to go. After checking with the chef she came back and said sure - then we'd be out of there in 5-10 minutes. So we ordered a margherita and a soppressata (spicy salami), to get a sense of what they do.
I'll say this for Ken's (this is the same Ken who owns Ken's Artisan Bakery on NW 21st, which is fantastic) - their pizza oven is the best I have ever seen. It's huge. The cooking area is open to the entire room so you can watch the staff work, which is amazing. It reminded me of a place I had lunch at in Assisi (as in St. Francis of) where I was seated not too far from the wood fired pizza oven and could literally watch the pizza cook. Ken's doesn't have seats quite that close, but you get the idea.
Our pizzas (all of them are 12") were done in what seemed like five minutes or less, which was outstanding. They had a nice balance of cheese and sauce, and for the margherita the fresh basil gave it a punch of freshness and flavor that was comforting. The soppressata was a thicker cut (compared to how it's usually cut) and had a kick but wasn't too hot - excellent.
The crust was amazing. It is more in the Italian style, thin with a nice chewiness. The slightly burnt edges gave it a great flavor from the wood burning oven, making it seem that much more authentic.
Yes, we would absolutely go back.
Was one of these better than the other? I don't think so - they aren't even the same style of pizza so judging them against each other isn't fair. However, they are both great eats and get definite recommendations from Wifey and I. Are they the best in Portland? Hard to say yet, but Al Forno Ferruzza and Nostrana will have a lot to live up to. Plus, that's not all - there are two foodcarts that come highly recommended as well, Wy'East Pizza and Give Pizza a Chance. And we'll have fun checking them out!