The crust trust
Friday, March 11, 2005
by GRANT BUTLER The Oregonian
Great New York-style pizza is a grail for food lovers. The super-thin, cracklingly crisp slices are talked about in reverent tones, particularly the farther west you head from the Big Apple, when they take on a mythological air.
Here, in the land of deep-dish catastrophes and unappealing all-you-can-eat pizza buffets, you're more likely to run across Bigfoot than a really good pie.
Which makes the Phoenix-from-the-ashes story of Apizza Scholls so wonderful.
Apizza Scholls is the new eastside incarnation of the terrific Scholls Public House, the Washington County pizza place that got national attention for its incredible crusts and minimalist approach to dressing them up. The place was so good it became doomed by its popularity. Its parking lot overflowed regularly, resulting in a zoning spat with neighboring businesses.
Caught in a bureaucratic trap, the Public House closed in late December, with owners Brian Spangler and Kim Nyland reopening in January in the upper Hawthorne digs most recently home to the Indonesian restaurant Surabaya.
Though you'd hardly know that Surabaya is history, given that its name is still on the awning and the only sign that a top-notch pizza parlor has taken its place are two tiny placards taped to the windows. That, and the incredible crowds that have found the place mostly by word-of-mouth.
Of course, the word spreads like wildfire when it's about a place this good.
The secret is in the fermented dough that's treated like a science, rising for more than a day, then spun out until it's thinner than a starlet on Oscar night. The dough is topped with the merest hint of tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and a drizzle of olive oil, then popped into an oven fired as high as 900 degrees. The result is pizza that remains crisp to the last bite of the last slice, with crust edges having spots of char that intensify the flavors.
The reason the crust stays so crisp is because the kitchen enforces restraint, allowing no more than three ingredients on any pie and limiting meats to just one. This keeps it from getting soggy and allows the pizza to be cooked faster.
If you're the sort who craves stuffed Chicago-style crusts and behemoths with names like "Meat Lover's Supreme," this probably isn't your kind of place. But when they're using such great meats, like spicy sausages from Viande Meats, why would you want to cloud up flavors by piling on topping after topping?
Pizzas come in only one size, roughly 15 inches, and a single pie is plenty for two, or enough for leftovers if you split the on-the-mark Caesar salad (the croutons are made from leftover pizza dough). With drinks and a mascarpone-cheese-filled cannoli for dessert, you can have a feast for less than $40.
So where does Apizza Scholls fall flat? It's not on the plate, but in the glass. Portland is an incredible beer city, with more than 20 breweries calling it home. It's also less than an hour's drive from one of the nation's top wine regions. So it's startling that only one local beer is available (the sublime Hair of the Dog's Ruth) and not a single Oregon wine.
For a place that's embraced the local and sustainable philosophy with its food, it's puzzling why its homegrown pies are paired with sips from places far away.
On Monday nights, when the pizza ovens are turned off, LOW BBQ fills in, altogether fitting given its similar background. LOW, short for Laid-Off Workers, developed a cult following at its tiny booth along lower Hawthorne and at regular appearances at the Portland Farmers Market, before calling it quits last year.
One barbecue fanatic I know was adamant that it was the city's best barbecue, and though I experienced it only once, I had no grounds to argue with him. I still don't. LOW's Monday night stints at Apizza Scholls feature incredibly tender beef brisket, pork spareribs, smoky pulled pork and something few barbecue places attempt, lamb ribs. The meat is served without sauce, allowing the smoky flavors to dominate (though there's a Crock Pot full of not-too-sweet sauce at the bar, if you feel the need to dip your 'cue). Wrapping it all up is a slice of pecan pie that my Oklahoma grandma might've made. This is true love.
Much like the pizzas that rule the rest of the week.