Pizza may rival the hamburger as the fast food that unites the world, but most of it is, frankly, awful. And that's because nobody gives a damn about the crust.
In the much-vaunted pizza parlors of the American Northeast, or even in the pizzerie of the Italian motherland, 99.99 percent of all pizza crust has the flavor of cardboard, sometimes spiced with a bitter dash of charcoal from a scorched spot. It's an act of mercy to smother that stuff with the usual thin tomato sauce, greasy cheese and second-rate olive oil.
But if you are a dreamer, a pizza visionary, someone who imagines how pizza could be and asks, "Why not?," you should drive 20 miles southwest of downtown Portland to a new pizzeria, the Scholls Public House.
From the first glance, this is a superior pie: a gleaming disk with a bubbly, crispy brown rim, dotted with bright tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella. The crust has the chewy pull and depth of flavor of first-class artisan bread--no surprise, because owner-chef Brian Spangler is a baker by training. His Olive Mountain Baking Company turns out delicious Eastern European-style rye, pumpernickel and whole wheat, loaves baked to a caramelized nut-brown in a brick oven he built himself.
Time is the key ingredient in great bread. Most pizzerias use quick-rise dough mixes or, worse, pre-formed frozen dough. At the Scholls Public House, on the other hand, making pizza dough takes 36 hours. Spangler starts with a poolish (pronounced poo-LEESH)--a mixture of flour, water and an infinitesimal amount of yeast--that ferments for 12 hours before it's mixed into the dough. He then takes the wet, 60-pound mass and gently folds and stretches it like taffy for about three hours, by hand, giving it frequent rests. The dough then spends 24 hours in the refrigerator, developing more flavor, before it's finally ready to bake. The slow, gentle handling gives the crust its simultaneously chewy and tender texture and multidimensional flavor.
Toppings are chosen with similar care. Don't miss the Margherita ($8.50 for 10-inch, $17 for 16-inch), a Neapolitan classic, with fresh, milky mozzarella, dabs of summer-sweet tomato sauce, the whole thing livened up with fresh garlic and fresh basil leaves. The Coastal Margherita ($9.50/$19) adds imported anchovies--oceans apart from the nasty, salty things that have created generations of anchovy-haters. You can order your own combinations of toppings, from pepperoni to pineapple, but if you must try something more baroque, I'd recommend ordering spicy-hot Venetian capicollo ($1.50/$2.50), coupled with fresh ricotta and niçoise olives.
A choice selection of beers on draft and in bottle is complemented by a few good Oregon wines, some from nearby winemakers who have become fans of Spangler's pizzas. (By the way, the pub makes a great stop on the way back to Portland after a day of wine tasting.) The rest of the menu needs attention, though: Salads, while made with fine produce, lack flavor oomph. And as for desserts, who wants doughy stuff like chocolate-chip cookies, brownies and carrot cake after pizza, especially when they taste this dull? How about cobbler instead, made from the multitude of berries that grow within spitting distance of the pub, or some homemade ice cream?
The Scholls Public House is located in a century-old building, and the place oozes with ramshackle charm (otherwise known as deferred maintenance), from the peeling paint outside to the mismatched antique furniture within. The wide-open dining room, with its dark wood bar, is cozy enough and soon will be equipped with air conditioning.
In good weather, the prime seats are on the deck sandwiched between the parking lot and the yard--the perfect place to wolf down the pulled-pork sandwiches ($5.95) Spangler serves on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. My friend Rick, who judges barbecue competitions, was impressed: He praised the flavor and texture of the pork (smoked over cherry- and pecan-wood), the just-a-cut-above-Wonder bread buns (no artisan-baker pretensions here), the not-too-wet slaw served on the sandwich. House-made Carolina-style vinegar sauce, pulsing with peppery heat, beats sugary, tomato-based glop. "This is the best pulled pork I've had in Oregon," Rick declared. "It would even be acceptable in the South, and that's not damning with faint praise."
Barbecue offerings aside, it's the pizza that's the draw at Scholls Public House, where Brian Spangler has re-invented a fast food as slow food. It's only a matter of time until Portland's urban pizza lovers decide the flavor is worth the trip.
24485 SW Scholls Ferry Road, Hillsboro, 628-1904.4-9 pm Tuesday-Saturday, noon-4 pm and 4-8 pm Sunday. Closed Monday. Credit cards and checks accepted. $ Inexpensive.
Also open for lunch 11 am-4 pm Monday-Saturday, serving soups and sandwiches but no pizza or barbecue.
Picks: Margherita pizza, with fresh mozzarella, tomato sauce, garlic and basil, or the Coastal Margherita, with anchovies; plus pulled-pork sandwiches, served only on weekends.
Reservations taken for groups of eight or more. For information and driving directions, visit www.olivemountainbaking.com