Escape From New York Pizza turned 30 years old in 2013. Way back at the beginning of its tenure—owner Phil Geffner remembers it as a time when pizza by the slice was otherwise unknown here and nobody had ever seen an "occupied" latch on a restroom outside an airplane—one of Geffner's regular customers, Dave LeFrancois, approached him about starting his own pizza spot. LeFrancois was comptroller of an onion company and told Geffner he didn't want to do it anymore.
"I charged him a nominal fee, like $1,000," Geffner says. "I said, 'I'll show you how to make pizza.' He told me he wanted to run just the one place in Salem." Namely, Straight From New York Pizza, established in 1986 in the state capital. The place was sold, then bought by family members of the original owners.
"One day I get this letter," says Geffner, "that says, 'Dear Phil, we're moving to Portland.' They said they told me because it's polite."
Michael Rice, SFNY's co-owner with Ian Jacobson, says he gave Geffner veto rights over the pizza mini-chain's name in Portland, but that Geffner was "super, super gracious."
The first Portland location was on Southeast Belmont Street, but Rice and Jacobson couldn't pass up expanding into the former Pizza Oasis spot on West Burnside Street. And so Geffner's own recipe boomeranged back to him as neighborhood competition. Rice, for his part, says he intentionally shortened the Burnside location's name to SFNY-West to avoid confusion, and that there's room for both restaurants in the neighborhood.
"I have so much respect for those guys," Rice says of Escape From New York. "I still eat there all the time. I hope they don't kick me out of there."
WW was curious who's been treating the recipe best, so we grabbed a slice of pepperoni and a slice of cheese from each place on the same day.
Escape From New York Pizza
622 NW 23rd Ave., 227-5423, efnypizza.net.
Geffner was at the shop when we arrived—as he is most days in the early afternoon—shooting wisecracks across the counter to every customer who walked in. Thirty years' worth of madcap collage lines every surface. "Jobs is Dead," reads one. "Get a Jerry." The pizza crust was crisp but foldable, the tomato sauce sweet and plentiful, the whole-milk mozzarella a solid quarter-inch thick atop each slice. Escape's slices can vary in quality, but the cheese slice we had, according to both of our reviewers, was a near-perfect rendition of New York-style pizza: The oil stayed in the sauce, the cheese was thick but didn't stretch in burning strands from the top of the slice, and the bottom of the crust had just enough crispness to add texture without losing its doughiness. The pepperoni slice was significantly oilier—not unexpected, but enough to warrant comment. (Pro tip: EFNY's slices with the housemade sausage are preferred to the classic pepperoni.) As for the creature comforts, Escape's little NYC-style counters may be a little cramped, but the soundtrack was unimpeachable: The shop played rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson. No delivery. The price for two slices is $7.50.
2241 W Burnside St., 228-5260, sfnypizza.com.
The décor at SFNY-West was noticeably updated from EFNY's: It looked like a mini-brewpub, from its wooden booths right down to the eight taps and the $10 growler fills—including 64 ounces of Fort George Cavatica Stout, whose cans retail for $5 at the supermarket. The young guys behind the counter might lack the longtime ease that comes from a sense of ownership—the EFNY staff goes to Hawaii each year—but SFNY has the clear edge on amenities. As for the pizza? The recipe seems to have gotten a bit garbled—it's the fate of all games of telephone. The crust is thinner and more crackery, the cheese thin enough that oil bubbles craterous holes through the top, and the sauce missing the lively spice found a few blocks north: It tasted a bit like tomato paste. But it's more than passable with a nice beer, especially at a spot that boasts the best growler fill in walking distance. Delivery available. The price for two slices is $6.75 and includes a soft drink.