TWO YEARS AGO I wrote a brief review of Firehouse Restaurant—a beautiful and enduring neighborhood success story in Woodlawn—for a Saveur piece on Portland. Then as now, this restaurant is still curiously absent from the name-brand gabble of local "foodies," even as it gracefully prepares dishes of distinctively Northwestern, quietly Italianate seasonal bounty. It is hidden away in the far Northern reaches of the city, in an underserved but regenerating community that is, during warm months, abuzz with strollers, bicyclists, and first-time homeowners. It was an early vote of confidence in the area, before Breakside Brewery, before Woodlawn Coffee, before places that sold better cocaine than barbecue were run out of the neighborhood.
Chef and founder Matthew Busetto bought the 100-year-old brick firehouse in 2007, scraped its bones clean of the decades of detritus and blight, and built a cozy space which now smells of crackling oak, roasting meat, and baking bread. The reclaimed timber interior is dark and oiled but airy and light, and the open kitchen, with its smoky rotisserie, domed wood oven, and fire, is homey and comfortable in winter and summer alike. Tables spill out onto the enclosed stone patio and sidewalk in warm weather, and two large but intimate dining rooms brim with cheery patrons year-round.
One of Firehouse's dedicated pizzaiolos—European trained and focused on his craft—finesses charred Neapolitan-style pies in the 800-degree oven. He directs the blistering air over the dough during its one-minute bake, while a scant handful of flour tossed into the flames explodes like a swarm of fireflies, critically altering the temperature and humidity within the tightly controlled window. He slides out the finished pie, charred and bubbling, and nearly winces as I take a second too long to photograph it. The dough, which has rested for days, has transformed into a thin, chewy crust, dotted with fresh mozzarella and a minimalist assortment of toppings, as gratifying to see as to taste.
Starters are simple, and highlight key ingredients. A dish of deep purple roasted beets, jewel-like in an olive-oil sheen, is adorned with salsa verde and chopped hazelnuts. A perennial favorite bruschetta of chopped asparagus, garlic, and rosemary has a spread of tangy fromage blanc, a fresh sheep's cheese. Little arancini, filled with a sausage of pork and sweet pepper, crackle and steam when broken open, their rice tender and soft. Salads of distinctly flavored, but delicately leafed fresh greens are dressed with a light vinaigrette and petals of shaved hard cheese. Many of the vegetables are grown seasonally in the restaurant's back garden.
Mains are elegant and unpretentious, and surprisingly large for their humble prices. Golden-seared rockfish—with saffron-braised cardoon, salty olives, and a touch of an oregano pesto called salmoriglio—is grilled over oak, then finished in the wood oven, never turned. It is delicate, flakes easily, and is perfectly fresh, time and again. Porchetta-style rotisserie pork shoulder, atop creamy Rancho Gordo white beans and braised greens, is served in a shallow dish of jus and nearly big enough for two. The roasted joint is sliced into a generous wheel and hit hard in hot oil, which gives it the intensely flavorful, caramelized exterior of carnitas; the interior is as good as roast pork can be: moist and tender, slightly smoky, and rich without gratuitous fat.
Busetto, a life-long professional cook, spent several years at San Francisco's Restaurant LuLu roasting thousands of chickens, and his experience is evident in the crisp skin and to-the-bone tender meat. The half-bird, brined for two days and scented with thyme, is currently served on a bed of thick, house-baked bread and strong greens; the bread, again brushed with fromage blanc, becomes a juicy panzanella as it absorbs the generous drippings of the chicken. This is also easily a dish for sharing, and is the restaurant's most enduring signature item.
Though there are but four desserts, they are hardly an afterthought. A banana ice cream cake, rich and smooth and filled with shattered brittle, has a sweet, crunchy cornflake crust. The bread pudding, now with rhubarb, is pillowy yet custard-like. Again, servings are so ample as to encourage sharing.
Wines are largely Italian, and the majority are priced less than $30 a bottle. Draft beer, cocktails, and inventive house-made sodas, as well as a sophisticated yet—like the food—neatly edited menu of after-dinner liqueurs, are also available.
Firehouse is a deeply satisfying, rewarding example of focused, dedicated ambition. The staff, many of whom look familiar over the years, are unfailingly knowledgeable, friendly, and swift. The humble yet gregarious and sharp-witted Mr. Busetto presides over the kitchen nightly, greeting new guests and waving goodbye to well-fed, loyal regulars. It is a restaurant worthy of your time.
Starters average $5, pizzas $13, and mains $17. Reservations recommended.