It's been seven years since I lived in Chicago, where I attended college, drinking too much Midwestern beer and cramming as much of the city's famous stuffed pizza into my maw as my student budget allowed. I haven't been back since, but the memory of buttery crust and stringy mozzarella hasn't faded.
So when Via Chicago, Portland's only attempt at the Windy City's signature pie, moved from a cart at the Portland Farmers Market to a high-ceilinged space on Northeast Alberta Street, I figured this was the way to get my fix. To fully remind me just how good these slices are, WW shipped in a sausage pizza and a spinach pizza straight from Chicago's best pizzeria, Lou Malnati's.
Malnati's reminded me of the fundamentals: Chicago pizza isn't just a gargantuan deep-dish pie. It's a special thing, its crust packed with more butter than I care to know before being stuffed with cheese and toppings, then finished with a layer of oregano-accented sauce. There is no such thing as too much cheese; you should be able to hold a slice of pie a foot away from your face and still have a string of melty mozzarella connecting it to your mouth. For the timid, forks are recommended. But even after being flown 2,000 miles and reheated in a home oven, Malnati's far outclassed Via Chicago. Compared to other heavy hitters in Portland's pizza scene, there isn't much to recommend the place.
Since its February opening, Via Chicago has had consistent timing problems, forgotten ingredients, sodden sandwiches and a doughy crust that's nothing like the real thing. Two separate take-out orders, both promised in 35 minutes, took an hour, leaving us hovering near the counters, staring hungrily at those who already had their slices. The first time we picked up our order, a prosciutto and arugula pizza came without the promised arugula (which no self-respecting blue-collar Midwest joint would permit), and a farro and roasted greens salad was so limp and bland it went straight to the backyard chickens.
In-house dining was better, as we tucked into a warm goat cheese and tomato sauce appetizer that helped bide the time waiting for our order of the "Meaty," featuring hot sausage, pepperoni and giardiniera peppers, which was the best of Via Chicago's signature pizzas. Chicago's Goose Island wheat ale makes a welcome appearance on tap, but it can't cover for the crust.
Via Chicago seems to skimp on expensive butter in favor of more flour, making a pie best left on the plate. The meats and veggies are solid—we loved being able to make a spinach and roasted garlic dish—and the ample application of cheese (less than what you'll get in the Second City) doesn't make the pizza greasy. But without a decent anchor of a good crust, Via Chicago is just mediocre. A homemade cannoli lacked anything special, and the Italian beef sandwich—another Midwestern specialty—was soggy at the bottom and served with a greasy au jus that made it more sodden.
With slices starting at $3.50 and 12-inch pizzas costing a minimum of $20.95, it's really more worth it to bank that money in a Chicago vacation fund. Or just order Malnati's—$58.99 for two small pies, including shipping.
- Order this: âMeatyâ pizza ($15.95 for an 8-inch pie that serves one or two).
- Best deal: Any slice ($3.50-$4) makes a pretty substantial lunch.
- Iâll pass: Farro and roasted veggie salad, vegan cheese pizza.
EAT: Via Chicago, 2013 NE Alberta St., 719-6809, viachicagopizza.com. Lunch and dinner daily. $$.