Pizza alla pala from Cafe Ollis wood-fire oven.
Pizza alla pala from Cafe Olli's wood-fire oven. Janey Wong
In case you were too frazzled by the holidays or busy lamenting 2021’s restaurant closures, there was an end-of-the-year bright spot in our local food scene. The all-day, worker-owned Cafe Olli opened on December 9th. The restaurant is centered around the iconic brick oven that defined former occupant Ned Ludd, and is a promising step into the future for Portland’s restaurant landscape.

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Co-founders Ryan Dirks, Cami Wong, Daniel Green, and Taylor Manning all previously worked for Submarine Hospitality; jumping ship—er, submarine—in the last year and a half or so, burnt out from long hours doing to-go food during the pandemic. The founding crew is rounded out with Manning’s real-life partner, pastry chef Siobhan Speirits. The project formed organically when members of the group were simultaneously looking for commissary kitchen space, and is also the evolution of Green’s pizza project Little Olli, which made weekend appearances at Pomarius Nursery throughout 2021.

Although members of the team all bring different skills to the table, they prefer to keep their roles more blurred than a typical restaurant, maintaining a collaborative and democratic environment where staff have a say in decision making. Front of house folks can be found prepping vegetables and the like and back of house folks will pop out to deliver things to tables now and again.

“We had a lot of conversations about different places that we worked and things that we saw as being important for what we wanted to do if and when we were going to do something new in the industry,” said Dirks. The industry vets have built the less hierarchical workplace they’ve “always wanted,” prioritizing things such as employee ownership, open-book accounting, and offering a living wage, healthcare, and paid time off via a 20% service fee. Service fees, which replace tipping, have gained traction among Portland restaurants in recent years. Most recently, Kachka made headlines for implementing a wage equity policy.

Dirks is responsible for spearheading the employee ownership model. Based on examples he’d seen from U.K. companies, the new venture has created an employee ownership trust (EOT). Essentially, half of the company belongs to the employees, and they will receive dividends when it becomes profitable.

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Janey Wong

The cafe aims to be flexible, leaving how it is utilized up to its patrons. Need a coffee and a grab-and-go pastry on the way to work? Coming right up. A more substantial sit-down breakfast? Olli’s got you too. The morning meal is served from 9 am all the way until 2 pm, making for another great option for weekday brunch, which this lazy bones writer greatly appreciates. Daytime and evening menus bleed seamlessly from one to the next. You can stop in for a drink and a quick bite if you’re going to or coming from somewhere, or have a full dinner experience.

Day or night, the cafe offers a sliding scale ($0-$14) community meal for anyone experiencing food insecurity or financial hardship, no questions asked. “Sustainability and our food sourcing systems are a huge part of what we do and there comes a financial advantage [of] being able to have access to that, so [we] want people who want access to that to have the means to,” says front of house manager Cami Wong.

Pizza alla pala by the slice is available starting at lunchtime (noon-5 pm), and dinner service transitions to whole pizza tonda (round pies). Green learned the two styles when he spent six months cooking in Rome. Eaten for breakfast or lunch in Rome, the long pizza alla pala are cut into rectangular shaped slices. (Green says although the cafe doesn’t serve it that way, it’s traditionally eaten folded… go ahead and use that info how you will!) A classic tomato, garlic, and oregano flavor is available daily, along with a rotating white pie. Green describes his pizza tonda as a middle ground between New York style and the traditional “super thin and crispy” Roman style.

For Green, there was zero learning curve in working with the wood-fired oven inherited with the space. Providentially, the model is a larger version of his own mobile oven. Both were made by Mugnaini, a Sonoma-based company that imports their clay from Southern Italy.

Green also handles the cafe’s bread program, which offers its all naturally leavened loaves for purchase in addition to utilizing them for the menu’s toasts and market sandwiches. Speirits, who did a stint at Coquine and who you may be familiar with from her quarantine project Saint Frances, now handles morning pastries at the all-day cafe. Mainstays of the pastry case include scones, old-fashioned donuts, morning buns, and cookies in rotating flavors.

A chocolate chunk cookie and citrus poppy seed cake are among the pastry case selections.
A chocolate chunk cookie and citrus poppy seed cake are among the pastry case selections. Janey Wong

Former Ava Gene’s chef de cuisine Taylor Manning leads the pasta charge on the dinner menu. Manning first learned the art of pasta making when he attended culinary school in Emilia-Romagna, and later honed the craft under JoMarie Pitino at Ava Gene’s. “It’s always a learning process,” says Manning. “There’s so many different types of pastas and I really love researching where all of these traditions come from.” On these cold winter nights, diners are tucking into the current menu’s two soul-warming selections: tortellini en brodo or rotolo, a rolled lasagna.

Although Olli offers a glorious trifecta of carbs, pizza, pasta, and pastry (seriously, this is place you wanna be if you’re in hibernation mode and carb loading this winter), the produce and meats that dictate their flavors are afforded the same degree of respect. The cafe tries to do as much whole animal butchery as possible and sources seasonal produce from sought after farms such as Wild Roots, Ayers Creek, and Pablo Munoz. Fresh pasta takes shape from Trent Family Farms’ farm-fresh eggs and double zero flour from Camas Country Mill or semolina flour from Bob’s Red Mill.

The building’s adjoining event space, which is used for bread and pastry production in the mornings, will be closely tied to the restaurant much like the relationship between predecessors Ned Ludd and Elder Hall. In addition to being available for private event rentals, the team is dedicated to offering it for free or a nominal fee to folks seeking a space for pop-ups and community events whether food related or not.

Cafe Olli, 3925 NE Martin Luther King, (503) 206-8604, cafeolli.com

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