The final scene of The Sopranos was, I think we can all admit now, among the most perfect 4 minutes and 30 seconds of television ever aired. Tony's unseen but obvious-to-any-non-jamook whacking in a diner booth was the rare satisfying but non-gratuitous conclusion to a series, made all the more perfect because it left some viewers banging on their cable boxes, worried they'd lost the feed physically when they'd merely lost it metaphorically.
And so what a delight it was to walk into Pizza Jerk and survey the room of red-and-white checkerboard tablecloths, glowing Tiffany lamps and high-backed booths as Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" played loud.
The night only got better from there.
Cully's brash new Italianish spot, along with the more-restrained Red Sauce Pizza across the street, form Portland's closest approximation of a Little Italy since they tore up the old downtown neighborhood to chase the "ethnic people" away. Both spots channel the atmosphere and cuisine of Southern Italian immigrants who came here beginning in the late 19th century, but Pizza Jerk, specifically, draws on the tradition of glorious bastardization that brings us West Virginia pizza rolls and St. Louis toasted ravioli.
The Jerk is Bunk Sandwiches king Tommy Habetz, who took over the old Magoo's bar on Northeast 42nd Avenue in November. The menu is large and delightfully convoluted—you have your pies with smoked brisket, you have your mozzie sticks that employ premium cheese to unsettling effect, you have your wings in a sweet-hot sauce and sprinkled with sesame seeds.
Order the special pies, especially the Han Dynasty ($25 whole) with chopped brisket, fried shallots, jalapeño barbecue sauce and goat cheese. I'm typically opposed to barbecue pizzas, but this one was wonderful.
Pastas are intense. Dry dandan noodles ($12) sopped with pink onion, fatty pulled pork and a ladle of chili oil were a trashy delight. Cacio and pepe spaghetti ($10) is drenched in
garlic and black pepper and served with a side of garlic bread in a small paper bag stained with grease—I concede nostalgia is a big part of the appeal, but I loved the burn of completely unrestrained flavor. This is what I've always wanted, and never got, from the city's few remaining old-school Italian joints.
At one point, Pizza Jerk made bony but toothsome little riblets, which were almost entirely composed of sauce and gristle, though they're sadly gone. The original plan to make soft-serve ice cream was scrapped, but instead they make fancy versions of Pizza Hut-style dessert pies, like an apple streusel ($10) coated in cinnamon, caramel, thin slices of green apple and almond bits. It's reason enough to bring four people; it comes only as a whole pie, but is absolutely worth ordering.
Pizza Jerk's vegetarian and traditional pies were the only things that didn't get me excited. An eggplant Parmesan tasted like it was topped with soggy rice cakes, and a boring old pepperoni would have benefited from more sauce and saltier cheese. If you're going unapologetically old-school, you've gotta commit. Pizza Jerk fails only when it doesn't push hard enough toward the loud and absurd.
Which is why I personally preferred Pizza Jerk to Red Sauce Pizza's more restrained take on the concept.
Saucestress Shardell Dues says she's been making pizza for 20 years, and tapped her friends and family for help opening her dream spot—she didn't know a similar shop would be opening across the street, backed by the Earl of Sandwiches. Personal touches are everywhere in Red Sauce's homey little space, where the pies are named for the people who put elbow grease into the build-out. Dues uses high-quality flour for her dough and DiNapoli tomatoes for her sauce, and smokes her own meats for toppings.
It's a very good neighborhood pizza spot—five years ago, before the artisan pizza boom, we'd count it among the best in the city—with a solid pub salad and an even-better winter salad ($5 small, $9 large) with deep green and purple hues, walnuts and twisted young carrots. The calzones ($11-$16) stay soft and pliable out to the edges.
Red Sauce tends to fail when it overthinks things. The calzone needed way more mozzarella and very little of the other three cheeses included. The Tony Soprano sandwich ($7) of Italian deli meats and shredded lettuce needed lots more oil and vinegar, plus a new bun that's not so dry and hard. Yes, An Xuyen Bakery makes great miniature French loaves, but they don't stand up well to oil or time—there's a reason banh mi places advertise fresh bread made on the hour. If you're gonna throw some gabagool on a roll and name it after Tony Soprano, you really gotta source Italian bread.
Luckily, I know a guy. Drive out to Beaverton. Best subs in town. Ask for Chuck. Tell him Tommy's moving in on your turf and you need some bread.