One of my favorite pizzas in town, at Ken's Artisan Bakery in Northwest Portland, has been available only one night a week. Owner Ken Forkish, whose breads are second to none, began his pizza quest modestly about a year ago, serving a few pies in a small space on Monday nights. Before long, word got out and the bakery was packed with diners trying to cram a couple of pizzas, drinks and a salad on tables better suited to a lonely café crème and maybe a pain au chocolat.
The good news for the Monday-night faithful is that the tables are bigger at Ken's Artisan Pizza, which opened in early July on the eastside's 28th Avenue restaurant row, and you can get the pizzas five nights a week. The centerpiece of the restaurant is a handsome, wood-fired oven that bakes the pies in about three minutes at 700-plus degrees, giving them just a touch of char and a bubbly, chewy crust. Fix Studio (the designers behind Doug Fir Lounge and clarklewis, among other spots), gave the space a warm, casual style, with tables and bar crafted from old-growth Douglas fir that was once part of the Big Dipper roller coaster that towered over Jantzen Beach from 1928 until 1970. Corner windows open wide on nice days, and in winter the oven will keep things toasty.
Unlike a lot of restaurateurs, Forkish and chef Alan Maniscalco are smart enough to keep it simple: The menu lists just seven pizzas, all based on a simple, flavorful tomato sauce and tender, fresh-style mozzarella (not stringy, salty "pizza cheese"). I especially liked the margherita and the marinara (both $10), which can be topped after baking with a tangy handful of arugula doused with good olive oil. The spicy soppressata (a type of salami) and the crumbled fennel sausage with caramelized onions (both $12) are also delicious, but beware the fiery dried Calabrian chilis, which are only for serious capsaicin freaks.
On a short list of starters, the beautiful roasted veggie plate ($10) stands out: In July, it included a flavorful selection of roasted beets; carrots with cumin, coriander and citrus vinaigrette; and roasted summer squash perked up with fresh mint and crumbled Grana Padano, the poor man's Parmesan. Sourced from local farms, the produce will no doubt change with the season. Slices of San Daniele prosciutto ($8) paired beautifully with roasted cherries and a cherry balsamic sauce. The Caesar salad ($7) misfired, though, with disappointingly timid dressing and croutons that were too darned big and hard to eat. Desserts used seasonal fruit for lovely, homey preparations like nectarine-tayberry crisp or roasted apricots with pistachios and mascarpone (both $6). An adventurous and fairly priced selection of wine and beer complete the menu.
The young, smoothly professional servers keep the place humming, proving that dining in a newly opened restaurant doesn't have to resemble being trapped in some ghastly reality show. In fact, my biggest complaint about the place is that there's little room to wait, and wait you will, unless you arrive early or late. A year or so of practice apparently does make perfect—or close enough, for Portland's pizza-lovers.
Ken's Artisan Pizza, 304 SE 28th Ave., 517-9951. Dinner 5-9:30 pm Tuesday-Thursday, 5-11 pm Friday-Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday. Reservations only for groups of eight or more. Pizza is also served every Monday night at Ken's Artisan Bakery, 338 NW 21st Ave., 248-2202.