WHEN I FIRST set foot in Life of Pie, just shy of normal people dinner hours on a weeknight, it was totally empty, save for a ponytailed man swinging an axe in the middle of the seating area, chopping kindling for the wood-fired oven. "Oh! How Portland!" I thought.
We placed our order at the counter for arancini—risotto croquettes with ricotta and mozzarella, AKA Italy's deep-fried cheese sticks ($6)—and two pizzas, one with fennel sausage and Mama Lil's Peppers ($11) and another with bacon, goat cheese, and oven-roasted leeks ($12). As we headed toward our pick of any table in the joint, the hostess called out, "If the chopping is too noisy, you can ask him to stop!" "Oh. How Portland," I thought. "Yes, I will ask the man to cease doing his job and to stop providing the very carbon life force for my pies."
Twenty minutes later, the steady whacking of wood continued a few short feet behind our heads, despite our sitting as far from the Paul Bunyan-meets-Chef Boyardee scene as we could. Out came the first pizza, the bacon number. It was a bit greasy with an olive oil base, and was actually much better the next day cold. Next was the sausage pizza, blackened as if it had spent its yeasty childhood in a coalmine. "This is a bit charred, but I like it that way," the waitress told us. "But if it is too charred for you, let me know." "Oh shit," I thought. "How effing Portland." The waitress returned to the open kitchen, where, over the sound of axe blows, I heard the chef exclaim: "You took them the burnt one?!" A few moments later, the waitress returned with a far less obliterated pizza. Two more guests entered. The chopping ended.
It's hard to forgive after a showing like that, but subsequent visits to Life of Pie turned me from a scorned, angry diner to an eater of indifference. It's a neighborhood spot in a N Williams location that's had an inauspicious start for its previous culinary effort: it replaces Oro Di Napoli, which first installed the aforementioned fancy oven and lasted maybe a year. These days, there's usually lots of kids and parents sharing plates at reclaimed wood tables under blue walls decorated with massive pizza peels. Happy hour, with its $5 margherita pizza and $3 drafts—only wine and beer here—is a worthy stop. But in the grand scheme of dough, cheese, and sauce, it's just ho-hum.
Let's start with the good. I don't know what they're doing with those meatballs, except that there's garlic, mozzarella, and a good dose of oregano, but they should definitely keep it up. They appear as an appetizer ($8), on a pizza with ricotta and red onions ($11), and with al-dente spaghetti dressed in a marinara sauce that's just the right side of sweet ($8). I also applaud the use of honey: A pizza with honey, salami from Chop Butchery & Charcuterie, Mama Lil's, and goat cheese ($12) is the most inventive of Life's creations. It's a first-time flavor combination for me, and one that strangely works, with just a hint of sweet that tones down a great deal of spice. Bee byproduct appears again on a salad of arugula and kale with a Parmesan and honey-lemon vinaigrette ($7) that had a surprising, hot kick at the end. Prices are fair, too—though a hungry person can easily take down a single pie and probably even part of an appetizer.
But by the time one reaches the end of a Life of Pie slice, life becomes labor. The painfully thin, cheetah-print charred crust covered in sauce gives way to a monolith of slightly-too-burnt dough at the edges. (Pro tip: stop eating before you get there and fold the last part of the slice over the crust.) A small Caesar salad ($5) had little to differentiate it from the pre-prepared bags in Safeway's produce section. And there's truffle oil on the menu. I thought we all agreed we were over truffle oil.
As the third restaurant to open in its space in as many years, I don't wish ill to Life of Pie—it certainly fills its niche of fast-casual diners with kiddos and North Portlanders who don't want to wait for a table at Lovely's Fifty Fifty. But that's a life that's not for me.
Editor's note: A sentence has been amended in this piece to reflect a more accurate portrayal of the location's history.