LIKE A MUTANT BALL of dough hyper-packed with yeast, pizzerias are quickly subsuming Portland. In the last year, no less than 10 new pizza joints—from high end to fast casual—have hung a shingle. It's as if every spare restaurant space is being filled with crust, sauce, and marinara.
The city seems to be lapping it up: Each new spot has a healthy crowd, if not a line, most nights. But a wait for a table doesn't mean they're serving revolutionary fare (take most of Portland's brunch restaurants, for example). Many of these places are mediocre stabs at the wood-fired trend, with a few uninspired swipes at New York style for good measure. Portland's got enough of that already, and the overload is pushing the universe's best anytime/anyplace food in the wrong direction.
Of the five or so wood-fired pizza places that have opened as of late, only one, Pizza Maria on SE Division, earns its accolades. The others are at best serviceable, and at worst, burned crackers or underdone sog-fests, where you wind up with a smaller pie that costs as much as a larger non-wood-fired one. It's like the small-plates trend: Sometimes the dishes are great, but often they're just high-priced, tiny portions. A trip for two to get pizza and beers shouldn't cost $50-plus just because someone built a nice, hot fire.
"There are a lot of shitty wood-fired pizzas out there," says Nicholas Ford, co-owner of PREAM, which is set to open this month on SE 11th and Grant. "It's not just buying a nice oven and cooking a pizza."
PREAM—a Mondays-only pop-up restaurant that operated for almost a year out of Ned Ludd's wood oven—nails the format, with farmer-sourced Northwest toppings on a thin-crust Neapolitan pie gorgeously speckled with char and just the right amount of chew. Even the best pizza dough is just a combination of flour, salt, water, and yeast; it's all about having the skills to pull it all together. Burning the shit out of it isn't the panacea.
"It's an Italian craft," Ford says. "It's not something you can fall into. A 30 degree drop in the oven, [or] your dough being two degrees off, and it's totally different."
With wood-fired pizza being so—ahem—hot right now, it seems like a more solid business venture than other styles, says Adam Lindsley, a Portland food writer and the biggest local pizza expert I know (he tweets as @thisispizza for gawd's sake!). But Lindsley says he hasn't tried much recently that gets him excited.
"Despite the hard work they may be putting into their new operation, I think that when they open their own place, so many of these people only then realize just how hard it is to get pizza right," Lindsley says. "It's very unfortunate that a city that needs as much pizza growth as Portland does is not going anywhere interesting or imaginative."
Lindsley says he'd like to see a great Sicilian spot, or a Midwest-style pizza joint like Milwaukee, Wisconsin's Maria's Pizza, which serves oblong-shaped dishes, oozing cheese and toppings. (Check out Midwest Pizza Co. for a Detroit-style slice—a different dish altogether.)
"So many of these new spots are floating right at the center, too unambitious to strive for anything beyond the status quo," Lindsley says. "And that's a real shame."
To this critic, along with Portland's Pizza Maria, the best new pizza comes in the form of big floppy New York slices at Atlas Pizza on SE Division. There's also the foot-long string of mozzarella you can pull off a deep-dish slice at Thick, a cart downtown, and the salty, medium-thick crust that holds inventive toppings like peach, prosciutto, and fennel at Slice on NE 7th. A common thread: They're all cooked in electric ovens.
Electric is the way Tommy Habetz, co-founder of Bunk Sandwiches, says he'll outfit his planned Moon Pizza (location and opening date to be determined). He says an electric deck oven provides the hottest and most consistent heat. Habetz put in time at both Tastebud, a wood-fired joint, and at Apizza Scholls, which runs electric, before he hit it big at Bunk. For him, 2015 is the time to embrace his first love, nurtured as a young chef in New York City during the '90s.
"I can't wait any longer," Habetz wrote in an email. "I have the need to knead. I can deny my inner pizza child no longer. Moon Pizza is on the event horizon for real."
Like everyone else, though, Habetz couldn't say why Bridgetown is all pizza all the time these days—and, maybe, he points out, it always should have been.
"I think pizza is always the people's choice," he writes. "I mean, anyone who's ever seen Rock 'n' Roll High School knows that pizza's always been where it's at."