The margherita pizza is almost as simple as it gets—crust, sauce, cheese and basil. It's how American pizza snobs usually judge pies, because there's nothing to hide behind.
Lately, an even simpler pie is getting a little wood-fired love. Traditional marinara pies are the simplest of three styles recognized by the Neapolitan dons of authenticity: just crust, sauce, sliced garlic and a sprinkle of oregano. Maybe you sprinkle sea salt and crushed red pepper on it, maybe you don't. Without mozz gobs to conceal imperfections, the pie is red-faced and naked in front of God and everybody.
Apizza Scholls does a marinara, though it's mostly for vegans. The Portland location of the Via Tribunali chain and the new Life of Pie on North Williams Avenue do them, too. Roman Candle, Duane Sorenson's casual pizza parlor on Southeast Division Street, brought the tomato pie to prominence locally with thick slabs of pizza al taglio topped with garlic, oregano and marinara. Now, the new Neapolitanesque Pizza Maria makes a standout version ($11), my favorite of four good pies at this clean-lined nook between a beer bar and the Bollywood Theater extravaganza.
Maria gets away with a menu smaller than at most food carts by doing what it does very well. Its plate-size pies—they'll serve two with salads, or one with a slice leftover—tend to be dark and leopard-spotted on the bottom, with blackened air bubbles and just enough sauce to cover the dough. One of our pies was overly black, but the other three were on-point. You'd expect continued refinement given that this 750-to-900-degree Mugnaini oven is manned by owner-chef Sean Coyne, who was previously boss baker at Per Se in New York (Thomas Keller's joint) until his wife, Aliza Kaplan, got a gig professing law at Lewis & Clark. That brought him to Portland, where he ran the ovens at Grand Central Baking before opening Maria.
A couple will leave happy after two pies (the most expensive is $15) and something to drink. Two draft handles go to well-chosen locals (Pfriem wit, Barley Brown Pallet Jack), and our Pitti cocktail of tequila, soda, grapefruit and thyme was well-made. A wine list of modestly priced drops is interesting, especially as everything is available by the glass. From Southern Italy, there's a primitivo ($9 a glass), the obscure sister to zinfandel, aged in concrete vats and Sicilian carricante ($12); from a few blocks west comes Division Winemaking's gamay ($14).
If you'd rather split a pie and get an appetizer, you can't go wrong with any of the five on the menu. Three thick, crunchy crostini with ricotta that has the fluffy mouthfeel of whipped cream, a drizzle of olive oil and halved cherry tomatoes ($7) are substantial, but not as much as the hearty summer salad, with hard, slippery greens, shaved piave cheese and a bright sherry vinaigrette. Best of all was a roasted carrot salad ($9) made from arugula, crushed pistachio and those eye-popping sunset-colored roots that call at the farmers market, but always dull in my own steamer.
The pies themselves immediately join the scrum for third-best in town (Scholls and Ken's remain untouched), especially the pesto pie ($14), which basically inverts the margherita with a pungent basil-base sauce and roasted cherry tomatoes on top. In the middle, you'll find some mozz and small chunks of guanciale, cured pork jowl so tender and sweet you might mistake it for caramelized onion.
Then, of course, there's that marinara. It's pretty much perfect as it is, but you can add San Francisco's classic spicy Molinari salami for $3. In the oven, it forms into little cups, the top rim browned, the bottom extra slick. Just don't tell the purists.
- Order this: Carrot salad ($9) and marinara pie ($11).
EAT: Pizza Maria, 3060 SE Division St., 971-303-7000, pizzamariapdx.com. 5-10 pm Monday-Thursday, 5-11 pm Friday-Saturday, closed Sunday.