Year-End Lists Part 1: Portland, Oregon is the best pizza city in the country--and why you should be wary of "best pizza" lists.
FROM THE “I DO THESE THINGS SO YOU DON’T HAVE TO” FILES…
I’m back, intact and fat, from two days in rainy Portland, Oregon.
I went there because it’s The Best Pizza City In The United States.
I suppose the big question here is: What did I find?
Is the pizza any good? And does the city deserve its reputation for eccentric hipsters?
While we'll be talking about pizza only, I believe the answer to both questions is yes.
For two consecutive years, Portland has been declared the nation’s best pizza city by Nathan Mhyrvold and Francisco Migoya, the men who authored the behemoth masterwork, Modernist Pizza.
Their book is three volumes and weighs around 35 pounds. I've read the entire book (so you don’t have to) and wrote a 50,000-word review (in case you might want to read the book anyway).
The Modernist Pizza crew ate pizza around the world and across the country.
Subsequently, Mhyrvold & Migoya planted their declarative flag in the nation’s summit of pizzadom, which seems an unlikely place.
It's not New York, New Haven, Philly, Boston or Chicago--the parts of the northeast pizza corridor that you'd expect to be battling it out for top honors.
That’s until you go to Portland and realize just what is really going on.
Portland is intense.
It’s one of the most interesting cities I’ve been to, it’s one of the most worn-out cities I’ve seen, and it’s one of the foodiest cities I’ve ever visited.
Note: I don’t use the word “foodie” as a pejorative, though I understand if you do.
There are “true foodies,” and then there are people who are “damn foodies.” (See also, anyone who declares themselves any kind of a food snob. But that’s a different screed.)
With only two days there, I decided to visit five of the pizzerias Mhyrvold & Migoya highlighted in Modernist Pizza.
I was going to visit Lovely’s Fifty Fifty because Sarah Minnick’s pizzas are gorgeous. And yes, I’m including the ones that are garnished with edible fresh flowers.
I’ve also heard her on several podcasts. She sounds like someone you want to invite to your next party.
I also admit some Yankee chauvinism here. Ms. Minnick has an art degree from RISD. (That’s Rhode Island School Of Design for all you civilians.)
I respect the arts pedigree as much as I respect the departure from her degree in painting and fashion design to pursue restaurateurism. (Maybe I’m practicing delusional sellfishism here. I have a degree in Broadcasting & Film from Boston University. After graduating, I spent several years in a) high-end audio and b) sailing big yachts across oceans. After a career in c) radio, I spend way too much time involved with d) pizza.)
I also wanted to try the legendary Apizza Scholls. This is one of the grandaddies of the Portland pizza scene. The line of customers forms well before opening, and you’re lucky to be seated in the first round. (I made it. Barely.)
The pizzas there look stunning in the best way possible—cheesy and charred and crispy and delicious.
Scottie’s Pizza was on my list because I hail from the New York Tri-State Area. The Modernistas declared Scottie’s the best NY slice in the nation. So that made it a no brainer. Plus, I love a good slice joint.
Also, I wanted to visit the pizza shop that all of the Modernista pizza tasters said they would most want to return to: Red Sauce Pizza. (That's the joint in the photo at the top of this rant.)
They said it wasn’t the most technically perfect pizza or the fanciest pizzeria or anything other than the one they all enjoyed the most. (This enjoyment factor is key. Be prepared…)
And I wanted to visit another Portland pizza landmark, Ken’s Artisan Pizza.
It’s been there since 2006, it’s a noteworthy pizzeria, and I enjoy Ken Forkish’s cookbooks.
But there was a last-minute fly in the pizza sauce.
Ken Forkish no longer owns Ken’s Artisan Pizza.
I didn’t find this out until I was in Portland. Recent Google reviews suggest that his departure has left the place with a leadership void. Diners are suggesting the pizzeria is merely a faint shadow of its former pizza self and don't care for the experience.
You can't always go by such reviews. But there were enough that I'd save Ken's for another day. So after ruminating on the Modernistas’ other notable pizzerias, I decided: Screw it. I’m going off the list.
I opened Google Maps and searched “pizza near me.”
The closest place to my hotel was called Dimo’s Apizza.
Just reading the name, it’s as if a gauntlet had been thrown down.
“Apizza” is a word unique to New Haven, Connecticut.
Considered a pizza mecca, New Haven is famous for “ah-beetz,” which is a Neapolitan pronunciation corruption of the word “pizza.”
A Neapolitan diaspora in the early 20th century led to a New Haven pizza culture that is world famous. The pizza cognoscenti love the city's pizza—except for the Modernist crew.
They went to New Haven, and thought the most popular places delivered pizza that was burnt and unappetizing.
They don’t dislike char. But they felt that New Havenites might be suffering from a kind of pizza Stockholm syndrome. This purposely burnt, hard, chewy pizza is what they’ve been told great pizza should be, so they embrace it.
I've enjoyed my few trips to New Haven for pizza. But I also understand what they were saying in Modernist Pizza.
Anyway, the word “apizza” is used by Apizza Scholls, but they do not claim any specific effort to emulate New Haven-style pizza.
On the other hand, Dimo’s Apizza says it right there at the top of the website's home page: “New Haven-style pizzas.”
So I took the claim of apizza as a challenge, not only to the Modernistas’ list, but to the actual place known for apizza.
So, what’s the verdict of Portland pies?
I enjoyed all of the pizza. As a baseline, I ordered a plain cheese pizza in each place. As I've said before, the cheese pizza is the naked pizza. It offers nowhere for the pizzamaker to hide.
I believe Apizza Scholls was the most impressive of the pizzas from the list.
Scottie’s was indeed a great slice. (Plus I had a slice of a grandma pie there which was also excellent.)
The Lovely’s Fifty Fifty pizza was a work of art. (Unsurprising.) The sourdough crust also had its own little flair.
Red Sauce Pizza was the quirkiest and coolest of all the pizzerias. The pizza was quite good. And it was like eating in a friend’s kitchen if your friend happens to be a little quirky and off center. (I totally get the appeal as the Modernist crew’s favorite experience.)
But by far, Dimo’s Apizza was the biggest surprise.
It felt like the best pizza I’ve had in a pizzeria in years.
I’m not sure it was in fact the best pizza of the trip. That might have been Apizza Scholls.
But Dimo’s was by far the most unexpected—and the pizza that most pointedly said to me that I’m doing something right in my own pizza making.
And this is why I have a problem with “best pizza” lists.
There are too many variables in pizzerias to truly have a “best list” that makes sense.
Among other variables.
As it happens, my personal list of “best pizzerias” includes places that you are unlikely to find.
That’s because you can find great pizza in unlikely places.
And we’ll be getting to the weird magic of that list next time.
Until then, have a fantastic Christmas and whatever else you might choose to celebrate.
Merry merry, happy happy, joy joy, apizza apizza!
Want to get on the "Best Pizza" list among all your friends? Check out Free The Pizza—A Simple System For Making Great Pizza Whenever You Want With The Oven You Already Have.
Blaine Parker is the award-winning author of the bestselling, unusual and amusing how-to pizza book, Free The Pizza. Also known as The Pizza Geek and "Hey, Pizza Man!", Blaine is fanatical about the idea that true, pro-quality pizza can be made at home. His home. Your home. Anyone's home. After 20 years of honing his craft and making pizza in standard consumer ovens across the nation, he's sharing what he's learned with home cooks like you. Are you ready to pizza?
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