Fiery Passion for Pizza
By Kerry Newberry
February is the month of love, and it’s time for sparks to fly.
Skip the fireside at home this year and head out to one of the spots OWP scouted from across the state where you can warm up with your sweetheart in front of a wood-fired pizza oven.
No need to head to Italy or New York for a bite of authentic crispy crust fresh from a blazing hearth. A revival of the wood-fired brick pizza oven is under way all over Oregon; artisan ovens now span the state, from Ashland to the Gorge and cities in between.
Passionate for Italian-style pizza, Oregon chefs and savvy restaurateurs are importing traditional ovens from Tuscany or making their own from local materials.
The floor of a good pizza oven is typically around 750°F, while the dome temperature is around 950 — making it possible to cook a pizza in just under two minutes, explained Matthew Busetto of Firehouse Restaurant. Ninety seconds — that’s the same amount of time it takes to realize love at first sight!
Ignite your passion for pizza at one of these amazing wood-fired phenoms.
1401 S.E. Morrison St, Portland
“I dreamed forever about a wood-fired oven,” says Chef Cathy Whims, a two-time James Beard Foundation Award finalist for “Best Chef Northwest.”
Whims has cooked with Giancinto Albarello at Genoa and in his own kitchen at the Antica Torre Trattoria in Barbaresco, Italy; as well as with Marco Forneris at Osteria La Libera in Alba — both renowned restaurants of the Langhe region.
Before opening Nostrana in 2005, Whims borrowed a mobile wood-fired oven from Mark Doxtader, owner of Tastebud Pizza in Portland — two winters in a row, so she could practice slinging pizzas in her backyard. For the past five years, she’s presided over her own wood-fired Mugnaini, cooking simple, soul-satisfying fare.
The hearth at Nostrana burns with oak, apple and other fruit woods — each type of wood imparts a different flavor essence to the dough. Each night the embers from the oven are spread; the next morning at 4 a.m., a baker begins sliding in rustic rounds of ciabatta dough, using the residual heat from the night before.
THE PIE: The Vongole — clams in the shell, house-made bacon, spinach, Calabrian chilis, lemon oil and garlic.
THE WINE: Cameron 2009 Giuliano — the traditional Friulian blend of grapes (Friulano, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, Auxerrois, Moscato) is aromatic and sensual.
THE SPARK: Tearing with into the uncut pizza with your hands. Pizza scissors available for the more demure.
SOLSTICE WOODFIRE CAFÉ
415 W. Steuben St., Bingen, Wash.
Husband-and-wife team Aaron and Suzanne Wright Baumhackl go all out on Valentine’s Day, the anniversary of their restaurant opening — it’s turning four this year. Aaron creates a special wood-fired aphrodisiac menu each February — a pure devotion.
“Cooking in a wood-fired oven is cooking in its purest form,” he says. “I like how it sears food, giving it a crispy outside while keeping the flavors and moisture in.”
Their Mugnaini oven has a thick Italian brick floor, which ensures a perfectly caramelized effect on the crust of the homemade dough. Locavores will delight that Baumhackl barters for the pear wood that fuels the oven. Pears from the same orchardist grace the pear-gorgonzola pizza and the pear, walnut and blue cheese salad.
THE PIE: The Hot Mama — piccante pepperoni sprinkled with local pickled cherry peppers.
THE WINE: Syncline Scintillation Rosé — the only Gorge-made sparkling wine.
THE SPARK: You can see the flames from the pizza oven when driving by on Highway 14.
STANDING STONE BREWING
101 Oak St., Ashland
Alex and Danielle Amarotico knew back in 1996 that a wood-fired oven would be the central feature in their restaurant, simply because handmade pizza pairs so well with craft beer.
The oven, built by Alan Scott of Ovencrafters, casts a warm glow from the open kitchen, often burning Pacific Madrone wood. An Australian-born craftsman, Scott has been deemed the artisan of the brick oven — he pioneered a wood-fired brick oven baking renaissance in the early 1990s. His handcrafted ovens are highly coveted. Standing Stone Brewing has revered their Alan Scott since opening in 1996.
THE PIE: Goat cheese and fresh figs. “The surest way to savor these flavors is by keeping the rest of the pizza simple, using a bit of olive oil as a base rather than a heavy sauce,” says Chef Eric Bell.
THE WINE: Wooldridge Creek NV Sparkling Brut Applegate Valley — the resident bubbles-on-tap.
THE SPARK: What could be more romantic than Shakespeare?
NICK'S ITALIAN CAFÉ
521 N.E. Third St., McMinnville
A venerable wine country institution, Nick’s Italian Café was founded by Nick Peirano in 1977. Daughter Carmen Peirano and her husband, Eric Ferguson, took over the restaurant in 2007 and added a wood-fired brick oven to expand the menu two years ago.
Their Mugnaini oven is the same brand found in the kitchen at Chez Panisse Restaurant. Celebrity chefs Mario Batali and Jamie Oliver both have Mugnaini ovens in their homes, too.
Pizza is served atop wine barrel heads, but when it comes to feeding the fire, the staff uses Oregon oak. “Good and sturdy,” says Ferguson.
THE PIE: Gorgonzola e Cipolla with local pear slivers and caramelized onion. A meaty option stars house-made Italian sausage — add anchovies to either pie for an aphrodisiac.
THE WINE: Early vintage Oregon Pinot Noir — Nick’s has one of the best local lists, so take your pick.
THE SPARK: A late-night game of pool with local winemakers and chefs in Nick’s Back Room.
THE BLUE GOAT
506 S. Trade St., Amity
Cassie and Dave VanDomelen opened this new wood-fired cookery in December 2010. The pièce de résistance: a seven-foot diameter earthen oven designed and constructed by preeminent cob artist Kiko Denzer.
The artfully crafted oven structure was built in place from its primary components of earth, sand, and straw — including Eola Hills clay. The “heat sink” layer under the firebrick hearth floor consists of about 150 wine bottles embedded in a porous sawdust and clay mixture.
THE PIE: Scantily Clad Pizza — a ten-inch rustic crust provocatively dressed with chef’s choice of fresh local ingredients. The rich tomato sauce, roasted leek, green olive, Gouda and house-made chorizo sausage pizza pairs particularly well with a buxom red.
THE WINE: Three Wives NV “Remy’s Red” — a heady blend of Barbera, Syrah and Lagrein.
THE SPARK: Out-of-towners: Book a wine country B&B and stay the night in the romantic Eola Hills.
4039 N. Mississippi Ave., Portland
Sisters Jane and Sarah Minnick run this darling parlor decorated with a touch of Anthropologie. Honey-hued booths mix with vintage red chairs. The Italian orange-tiled wood-fired oven glows from the open kitchen, set ablaze with oak and fruit hardwoods.
“We love the simplicity of cooking in a wood oven, and the great flexibility as well,” says Sarah.
Meat lovers will devour the wood-smoked house-made boudin blanc sausage with buttered cabbage and mustard. For an aphrodisiac plate, opt for the oven-roasted Brussels sprouts with lemon, Parmesan and hazelnuts. They will convert you and your date to wild cabbage devotees.
THE PIE: Salumi finocchiona with mama l’il peppers and Castelvetrano olives.
THE WINE: Grochau Cellars 2008 “Tinto” — a lush blend of Syrah and Tempranillo.
THE SPARK: Audible sighs after one bite of the homemade salted caramel ice cream. Your date will swoon, after one lick of the spoon.
711 N.E. Dekum St., Portland
Twinkling white lights sweep across the garden just in front of the restored old Firehouse 29 in Northeast Portland, a beautiful old-world brick building. Matthew and Elizabeth Busetto opened the doors to Firehouse restaurant in June 2008. Illuminated antique bottles frame the dining room. The tawny-tiled Valoriani oven is the first thing you’ll see when you walk in, warmed by the glow.
The oven is highly regarded for its ability to burn hot and retain heat well. “This is in part due to the special floor of their oven made from quarried clay from the Tuscan hills and the incredible insulating properties of the oven’s dome,” says Busetto.
Oregon oak fuels the fire as the locally sourced wood burns hot and long. Besides making Neapolitan pizza in the oven, Busetto also roasts fish and bakes bread in the morning, using the residual heat from the previous night’s use — the oven is still around 650 degrees on the floor the following morning. Look closely at the arch of the oven for ‘Dolly, the Patron Saint of Pizza.’
THE PIE: Fresh mozzarella, Oregon black truffles and thyme
THE WINE: Carlton Cellars 2009 Dolcetto — a perfect match for the personality of the truffle.
THE SPARK: A sea-salt kiss from the wood-fire smoked mussels.
449 N.E. 24th Ave., Portland
Lucca’s namesake is an ancient walled Tuscan town often touted as a hidden gem in Italy. Similarly, the unassuming neighborhood restaurant on the corner of N.E. 24th and Fremont is packed most nights yet off the beaten path.
Executive Chef Lissa Kane gets her inspiration from her travels across Italy as evidenced on her blog, Tasty Forkfuls, and the fresh produce available in the Portland area.
“We all love the simplicity and freshness of the food,” says Kane. “Pizza is the perfect canvas for the bounty of the Northwest.”
THE PIE: Wood-roasted mushrooms, Fontina, mozzarella, Parmesan, parsley and truffle oil — an egg cooked in the middle is an option.
THE WINE: Daedalus 2007 Pinot Noir Willamette Valley — the minerality accents the richness of the cheese and mushrooms.
THE SPARK: Dipping crispy Yukon gold potatoes with rosemary and Parmesan into a rich aioli sauce.
KEN'S ARTISAN PIZZA
304 S.E. 28th Ave., Portland
Ken’s Artisan Pizza opened in 2006, born from wildly successful Monday pizza nights at Ken’s Artisan Bakery on the west side.
The hip restaurant is great for people watching and pizza watching, with an open kitchen that is easy to see from any seat in the house. The Le Panyol wood-fired oven, was built by third-generation master mason Timothy Seaton.
The tables and bar tell a story, too — both were made from salvaged wood (old growth Douglas Fir) that was once part of the late Jantzen Beach Big Dipper roller coaster.
On any given night, there is a line out the door and a wait to get in. Once you do, start with the seasonally changing wood oven roasted vegetable plate, always beautifully presented and delicious.
THE PIE: Spicy soppressata, tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil — a classic on the menu since opening in 2006.
THE WINE: Apolloni Vineyards 2006 Conti di Val Seriana ‘Soleggio’ Columbia Valley — Italian brio, but Oregon made.
THE SPARK: Embrace “Portlandia” and two-wheel it to Ken’s. The city’s biggest bike corral sits outside the eatery.
WINE & PIZZA
“Pizza cries out for a zesty mouth-watering wine,” says Natalie MacLean, editor of one of the largest wine sites on the web at www.nataliemaclean.com. “I love a zesty Sauvignon Blanc with vegetarian pizza or a tangy Chianti with meat lover’s pie.”
Maclean pairs wine with 27 types of pizzas in her web-based Drinks Matcher as well as in her free mobile apps for iPhone, BlackBerry and Droid.