THERE ARE TWO TYPES of pizza eaters: the "from the hand" types, preferring the fold 'n' bite technique, and the "fork and knife" types who pluck their pie from shining tines. The former are often seen in lowbrow pizzerias, while the latter are often found in the sit-down gourmet wood-fired joints so popular in Portland these days.
I always somehow knew the best way to eat pizza was with my hands, but I never had a reason... aside from the fact pizza slices taper like delicious arrows, which should obviously be aimed at my hungry gob.
On a recent evening at Lovely's Fifty-Fifty—one of those sit-down gourmet wood-fired joints—I discovered another reason for eating pizza from my hand. It was right under my nose in the form of one 12-inch melted leek, fromage blanc, and pancetta pie.
Though it was of the floppy, thin-crust, artisanal variety, I dove in with both hands anyway, hefting the small slice for a bite. As it rose from the table, the fantastic aroma of onion, garlic, and bacon, with a hint of pleasant goat cheese sourness, enveloped my face. The scent was beautiful and insistent, wafting from the wide end of the slice and lingering as I took a bite.
The olfactory experience melded with the taste and texture on my palate—strong salt of bacony pancetta and blunt creaminess of fromage blanc. Simply: a perfect bite, and one I wouldn't have experienced had I left the slice on the plate and employed fork and knife. Aha!
Or not. I didn't find the same olfactory experience as I chewed through other pizza options at Lovely's Fifty-Fifty. Still, there wasn't a bad pie to be had, just varying degrees of good: from "all right" (the margherita), to "wonderful" (Calabrian chiles, black olives, Bellwether ricotta, plus optional farm egg added), to "fan-fucking-tastic" (melted leeks, etc.).
There is a touch of inconsistency here. Not enough to ruin a meal, but enough to raise an eyebrow over several visits.
Understandably an all wood-fired menu (didn't you notice the conspicuous stack of wood at the front door?) will be difficult to control. But on some occasions the pizza crust was cracker crisp, while at other times it was a bit chewy.
Also, some pies are nearly over-salted, while others are just this side of bland. A nettle pizza with a faintly grassy pesto-like base remains fine even in the face of aggressive salt from guanciale (cured pork jowl) from Salumi in Seattle. Comparatively, the margherita's flavors are very muted, but still not bad.
The rest of Lovely's story, the other 50 percent you could say, is found in a pleasing selection of starters, salads, and veggie dishes from the oven.
Rich golden potato soup with nettles becomes more flavorful as it cools—earthy, with a hint of lemon and pepper.
Brussels sprouts paired with parmesan sport a crunchy outer char and tender hearts, without a hint of bitterness.
A weedy garden lettuce salad with hazelnuts and pear is very pretty and perfectly dressed.
Polenta with fontina, farm egg, and kale is warm and filling with an interesting subtle hint of vanilla.
More interesting flavors emerge in the beets with avocado, grapefruit, cilantro, and (supposedly) Calabrian chiles, though there was no evident heat.
I would be remiss not to mention the tasty handmade ice cream, the final major attraction on the menu. The salted caramel in particular could become a favorite with its balance between sweet and savory and buttery richness. The spicy Mexican chocolate is also good, with a heat that rises on the back of the palate and remains while the ice cream cools the tongue.
From outstanding to simply good, the bounty is brought to the table by a friendly waitstaff who neither dotes nor ignores. And it's all easily enjoyed in an atmosphere that's an inoffensive blend of all-wood, modern "green" design, and mid-century grandmother comfort.
Of course, none of it matters if you've got an aromatic slice of melted leek and pancetta pizza under your nose.
Understanding that Lovely's Fifty-Fifty offers a seasonal menu, you should not expect that wonderful pie to be around forever. Still I can only hope that as summer emerges, they'll come up with another choice, just as good, that will ensure forks and knives will remain on the table, as clean as if they've just emerged from the dishwasher.