Sausage and Mama Lil's Pizza at Apizza Scholls
4741 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 233-1286, apizzascholls.com.
Nothing about Portland's perfect sausage and pepper pie was planned. Not the electric oven that bakes it, not the space the houses it and definitely not the pricey peppers that have returned to top it after a year in the wilderness.
As told by pizzaiolo Brian Spangler…
"We moved to Scholls, Ore., in 2000 and bought the remnants of a five-acre Christmas tree farm. I built a bakery in the barn. I built a wood-fired oven, and we started Olive Mountain Baking Company. Sunday was pizza day. We started thinking about places like Patsy's in East Harlem, and just kept experimenting with that style. After two to three years of doing this every weekend we got better at it.
One of three rural commercial businesses in the town of Scholls came up, and we opened our doors on Jan. 2, 2004, as Scholls Public House. I couldn't build a brick oven out there, so I got an electric oven and we started making pizza in March of that year. And then…crickets. Our best night in those first months was 25, maybe 30, pies. It was pizza out there in the middle of nowhere. One night we sold three pizzas.
Word got around. Next thing you know, people from Portland were driving out. It went from zero to 60 overnight. It got kinda crazy. I'd be making pizza, and all the neighbors started yelling at me that I had to get these cars off the side of the highway. We started receiving letters about a month later from Washington County, saying that if we didn't address this situation immediately, we would be responsible for fines of $1,000 a day. There was no way out.
It's still hard for me to drive out there. The bad memories of that year, because we had people around us who we thought were our friends. But, in the game of country politics, they had to turn their backs on us.
My wife, Kimberlee Nyland, and I started looking at Craigslist ads for a turnkey restaurant in Portland…and we found this place. We closed our doors in Scholls on Dec. 30, 2004, so we didn't even make it one year.
In the pole barn, I'd built a wood-fired oven. At the Public House we couldn't build an oven. Baker's Pride had just come out with a standard-size electric deck oven—before that they'd always been countertop—and it allowed you to control the temperature much more precisely, and it stayed hot, unlike gas where you lose the heat when you opened the door. We could get it to extremely hot temperatures. After I'd baked in that electric oven for a week, I'd never go back to wood.
Back east, it's very common to get a plain pie—it's normal. It seems like a West Coast model is that the toppings define the pizza. Our whole process was modeled off achieving the perfect plain pie. The thickness, the ratio of sauce and cheese—we wanted all that to balance out.
Out in Scholls, a lot of people wanted to put everything on the pizza. People were like, 'This is a mess.' And it's like, 'Yeah, it's going to be a mess if it's weighted up with stuff on top.' So we decided to restrict what people can do—three toppings, max.
I knew for sure they're going to start calling me the Pizza Nazi. Everybody thinks they're original, like, 'Oh, have you seen the Soup Nazi episode of Seinfeld?' Yeah, man, duh. Other people thought that we were being very pretentious or we don't care about customer service. You name it, I've heard it.
I grew up eating sausage and hot cherry pepper pies—I always liked them.
When we first opened we bought sausage from a local butcher, but it was inconsistent. It was just like, 'This batch is salt and meat.' Finally they said, 'You know exactly what flavor profile you want, why not just make your own sausage?' The recipe for the sausage has not changed in 11 years. We add sambuca to accentuate that fennel flavor—the fennel flavor is what I want in Italian sausage—and it adds that little bit of sweetness that rounds off the spice.
We fell in love with Mama Lil's peppers. Man, were they good. I looked at the price tag and I was like, 'Man, are they expensive!' Back then, the 5-pound pail was between $30 and $35. They're $90 now. But they had a tooth to them. They had a little more spice, it wasn't as vinegary and acidic as now. We were the first place to put sausage and Mama Lil's together. Now, what place doesn't do it?
They were so good back then. They were worth it. But the company sold, and we just kept watching the quality go down and the price go up. So I was like, 'Screw this, I'll just take them off the menu.' I was a little hard-headed about it. Oh my God, people freaked out.
I know my servers hated me. They were begging me, 'Please put it back on, I don't want to hear another customer complain.' We had people bringing in their own little jars of Mama Lil's. We had regular customers just buying sausage pies for carry-out, and we knew they were putting their own Mama Lil's on.
We just kept trying different peppers, and trying and trying different peppers—for a year. We liked this one but…but…but. Lots of buts. Even though Mama Lil's is nowhere near as good as it used to be, and the price is skyrocketing, I decided we needed to just go back. We'd made our point. But I wish I could get that guy who made the peppers originally—the guy who sold—to make them for me the way they used to be. Man, were they good. If you didn't have them, like, seven years ago, you don't even know."
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