CONSIDER THE CART-BASED pizzaiolo: He may look happy, in his flour-dusted concertgoer's apparel and basic men's hat, but his heart is heavy with cares. In order to blister his precious crust, the oven at his chest must reach temperatures nearing 1,000 degrees; he must work a sensitive dough while exposed to notoriously unpredictable humidity and temperatures; and his customer is standing, unable to relax with his birthright IPA, and therefore prone to eerily simian staring. Despite it all, though, Portland cart cooks offer some truly great—and some not-so-great—pizza pies.
Cartopia, SE 12th & Hawthorne, 929-1404, Tues-Sun 11:30 am-3 am, pyropizzacart.com
Pyro Pizza's custom, wood-fired dome oven walks the walk: 1,000 degrees air, 600 degrees floor. This, together with a thin, chewy, slightly sour dough and simple, light marinara, makes for a Neapolitan-style pizza superior to most brick-and-mortars in town. The telltale blistering and mixed hole structure of the generous cornicione (what we are apt to refer to as the "crust"), as well as the charred undercrust, indicate a pie in pursuit of the Italian tradition. These glistening, fragrant masterpieces come to the window with crisp-edged, heat-curled rags of pepperoni, wilting basil, and bubbling, buttery mozzarella. Equally noteworthy is the price: an individual meal-size pie checks in at a truly remarkable eight bucks. This was easily the favorite in the roundup: best product, most consistent, good hours, and best price.
3131 SE 50th, 701-5149, Wed-Sat 4:30-9:30 pm, Sun 4:30-8:30 pm, wyeastpizza.com
Also superior to most brick-and-mortar pizzerias is Wy'east Pizza, a cart so happily painted and depressingly situated that when I saw it open a couple years ago, it broke my heart a little. How very wrong I was: This ambitious little boys' adventure shack bakes world-class whole pizza pies. Great chunks of hand-chopped, spicy raw garlic swim in the oregano-rich marinara, a headstrong version of the classic recipe that is complex enough to sauce a noodle. The pizza overall is a Neapolitan-American evolution: wider and with a lower cornicione, but still an expertly balanced composition of fresh mozzarella, ethically vetted quality toppings, and restraint. The handsomely scorched crust from their brick oven gives a satisfying nutty chew, prolonging and developing the bold flavors. Call ahead if possible, as the long waits are well known.
Give Pizza a Chance
SW Stark & 5th, 333-4434, Mon-Fri 11 am-6 pm, givepizzaachance.com
Give Pizza a Chance's 600-degree Baker's Pride oven turns out perfectly respectable pizza. Their New York-style pies use a sweet, thick marinara, which, with their less-watery mozzarella, helps the crust stay stiff even after sitting in the many by-the-slice pans (10 varieties on my last visit). The dough doesn't have the vaunted worked-gluten chew of Pyro or Wy'east's, and eats a little like a cornmeal crust, but for $2.50-4 a slice, it's a solid piece of lunch. Try the deep-dish options for a satisfying mid-day fix, and watch for the creative specials, which show a clever palate at work.
Southwestern Pizza Company
à la Carts Food Pavilion, SE 50th and Division, 863-7099, Fri-Sat 11:30 am-8 pm, Sun 11:30 am- 6 pm, southwesternpizzacompany.com
This is a flatbread offering that will have hidebound pizza pedants calling foul. Southwestern Pizza Company uses a four-cheese blend of fontina, parmesan, provolone, and asiago on their personal-size pies, and instead of their standard simple homemade marinara, some use a base of alfredo or sweet barbecue sauce. It's a novel offering that can range from successful and satisfying (Italian sausage with sage and alfredo sauce) to pedestrian (a pepperoni that could have come from Trader Joe's). Navigate the menu with the flatbread concept firmly in mind, and experiment with such nontraditional toppings as bacon, apples, and chicken. With three sauces, the permutations quickly grow.
Good Food Here cart pod, SE 43rd and Belmont, 840-5282, daily 10 am-10 pm, plus large non-pizza menu
Cornucopia Joe's has a different, perhaps more workmanlike understanding of crust, which comes out like a thick, somewhat undercooked pita. However, the pure food-to-price ratio is high, with massive offerings like a sub-$10 calzone that's big enough to feed four. Classic American pizza parlor taste is plentiful in the toppings, but I wound up "finishing" the pizza to a more traditional crispness in a hot dry skillet at home. Though "take 'n' bake" is doubtless not what the gregarious Joe is after, it's a viable option for this extremely affordable, if unexciting offering..