How's this for timing: Two Neapolitan pizza places happened to open nearly simultaneously in downtown Portland, both serving authentic thin-crust pizza at affordable prices. Each has been packed from the get-go. Despite their surface similarities, the restaurants represent opposite philosophies of cooking and restaurateurship.
Via Tribunali, the first to open by three weeks, is the hotly anticipated fourth location of a Seattle chain founded by Mike McConnell, president of Caffe Vita, known for its fetishistic devotion to authenticity. The Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana-certified pizzaiolo, Gennaro Nasti, comes from Italy. So do the bricks in the oven, the cheese, olive oil and meats on the pizzas, the entire very long wine list, the sole beer on tap and even, absurdly, the tiramisu. These pies have a serious carbon footprint.
The Portland outpost, opened by McConnell, local restaurateur Bruce Carey and Presidents of the United States of America drummer Jason Finn, is a big restaurant in a small package, cramming 70 seats into a 1,500-square-foot storefront across the alley from Voodoo Doughnut. Its opening has brought a second line to the intersection, as the weekend crowd spills out of the cramped waiting area and onto the sidewalk. Inside it is dark and intimate, warmed by the heat of the oven, the dark-stained wood and oil paintings of erupting Vesuvius sparsely lit by cast-iron chandeliers and expensive incandescents. The soundtrack is American—Sinatra.
The space is laid out with capacity, not logistics in mind. The prep area by the restaurant's enormous wood-fired oven overlaps with the narrow path between bar and booths, forcing diners looking for the bathroom to dodge the 8-foot handle of the pizzaiolo's swinging paddle. There's no prep area, so customers tend to wander into the middle of the restaurant, looking for someone to seat them. The bartender and the guy running the meat slicer have to dance around each other behind the bar. The restaurant gives an initial impression of chaos.
There seems to be no disorder in the kitchen, though. Via Tribunali's oven runs so hot—1,200 degrees Fahrenheit—that pizzas arrive within 10 minutes of ordering even on a busy night. They are impeccable: thin, very chewy, 12-inch pies, their bottoms charred, their sauces fragrant. The house special ($17) is a rolled-edge thing, topped with tomato sauce, smoked mozzarella, cherry tomato, ricotta, buffalo mozzarella, grana padano and basil, that's about halfway to a calzone. It's good, but too doughy for my taste. I prefer the basic Margherita ($13, though it's worth paying another $3 to upgrade to springy, tangy buffalo mozzarella) or, better, the quattro formaggi. The latter is among the best things I've eaten this year, covered in a thick-but-not-too-thick stratum of mozzarella, smoked provola and grana padano studded with little land mines of Gorgonzola that detonate on the palate. There are things other than pizza on the menu—a very good mixed salumi board and pleasant, unremarkable salads—and the bar makes a very fine Negroni, but everything is overshadowed by the pizza.
Some 13 blocks away, in the Pearl District, Oven and Shaker takes a very different approach to the Neapolitan pie. A project of ChefStable group, the "urban saloon" is the brainchild of bartender Ryan Magarian and Nostrana chef Cathy Whims, an obsessive student of Italian regional cuisines who, in her 20 years at Genoa restaurant, was hugely influential in the development of the city's local, seasonal culinary ethos.
The restaurant is enormous, a 3,200-square-foot room embellished with stained barnwood, giant mirrors and little else. It has 76 seats in three long rows: one of booths, one at the bar and one of skinny, high tables in between. Waiters buzz efficiently up and down the aisles, and service is remarkably fast. On my first visit, I was seated, fed and out the door in 45 minutes. The air of competence is broken only by the terrible playlist; the last time I was in I heard Tool, Florence and the Machine and some awful country ballad in one 15-minute stretch.
Oven and Shaker has a boozier focus than Via Tribunali, with thousands of dollars worth of liquor behind the bar and over a dozen excellent beers on tap. Several wines are also on tap. Magarian's cocktail menu is thoughtfully divided into "fresh," "dry," "strong" and "nonalcoholic," with enough variety to please drinkers of all stripes. Like juice? Try a Pineapple Trainwreck with rum, lemon, ginger and pineapple. Want something more complex? The Corleone, an aromatic mix of gin, grappa, lemon and white grape juice is Magarian's masterpiece. Most of the cocktails cost $9, a very fair price given the quality of the spirits. The menu lists not only the ingredients but also the recipe for each drink—a first for Portland and a boon to home cocktailians.
Lots of drinks call for lots of fried food, which Whims provides in abundance. Her arancini—deep-fried balls of breaded risotto, $4 for two—are better than most I've had in Portland, but they can't compete with the cazzili, a $5 pile of gooey potato and cheese croquettes that remain blistering hot for 10 minutes, in defiance of the laws of thermodynamics. You will scald your mouth on them, but you will have no regrets. Whims does not neglect salads. Either the Insalata Nostrana (a radicchio Caesar, $10) or the Dinosaur Kale salad (shredded with pecorino and bread crumbs, $11) with a pizza will satisfy two eaters.
Oven and Shaker's wood-burning oven came, like Via Tribunali's, from Italy, but Whims' devotion to Northwestern bounty is reflected in her thoroughly untraditional pizza toppings, which include bosc pear, roasted squash and Oregon anchovy. Best of all is the chanterelle, radicchio, fontina, leeks and fried capers pizza ($15), which tastes like a crisp December morning. (If you'd rather not experiment, you can get a standard Margherita or salami pie.) Whims' pizzas are slightly thinner and less chewy than Via Tribunali's, with a nutty flavor and very crisp edges. They are also about $4 cheaper.
Both Via Tribunali and Over and Shaker serve exceptional pizza, so the choice between them comes down to priorities. If you value a short wait and adventurous flavors, go to the Pearl; if you're more concerned with tradition and atmosphere, head for Old Town. Oven and Shaker is a logistically superior enterprise, and better aligned with the city's values, but Via Tribunali has more soul.