Something has gone haywire with Portland's notion of fancy. The new incarnation of an old wood-fired favorite, Handsome Pizza, has convinced me of this.
Before moving into its new digs on Northeast Killingsworth Street, Handsome Pizza wasn't so handsome.
It was started six years ago as hardscrabble shop Pizza Depokos by an ironworker named Ethan Welt, in a North Portland auto garage whose parking lot housed a food-cart pod. By the next year, pizza-maker Will Fain had taken it over, and spent years honing his simple marinara, pepperoni and sausage pies in a wood-fired oven that might as well have been al fresco when the garage's sliding doors were up. He eventually renamed the place Handsome Pizza. It was terrific.
Starting in the morning, Seastar Bakery makes pizza-dough-muffin breakfast sandwiches, plus obscure-grain pastries and fancy toasts so fancy they almost don't seem like toast anymore—using spelt and cornbread and rye and something called kamut-sesame, made with grain first discovered in the tombs of the Pharaohs. I enjoyed my $7 yellow-eyed beans and greens toast.
Handsome's pizza is equally fancy toast, with cremini-and-cream pies, olive-oil pies without cheese, and pizzas with potatoes and kale that use salsa verde in lieu of sauce.
The new place is full of friendly touches, like a village of kitsch on shelving, lamps papered with the work of local comics stars Matt Fraction and Kelly Sue DeConnick, and a huge iguanalike dragon sculpture by Gremlins artist Chris Walas. Somewhat less friendly was the 80-degree heat venting off the wood-fired oven on one visit that co-owner Katia Bezerra-Clark says has not been a regular issue.
The pizza dough is still a wealth of tang and char, beneath the ambitious ingredients. And the $3.50 pepperoni slices are still great. But after three visits, I can't fall in love with the place. The new pies we tried, and the more sterile environs of the Little Beirut building, have actually managed to obscure what made Handsome great—its simplicity and execution.
The cheeseless Marianna-Elyse ($9 small, $19 large) came with sparse, soft tomato chunks drenched in olive oil to the point that it dripped everywhere across the paper beneath it. And a Chris Walas ($13, $25) was a confusion of upscale ingredients that didn't seem to belong together—kale, salsa verde, potato slices and mozzarella. The salsa and kale acted at strong cross-purposes, while the potato not only doubled the starch load but seemingly soaked up the heat from the somewhat underdone crust. A no-sauce Tissa Stein ($13, $25), meanwhile—named after the Tabor Bread baker—combines za'atar Middle Eastern spice with salty olives, onion, chili, garlic and mozzarella. The ingredients, unfortunately, stacked the sodium a bit high.
A $7 seasonal veggie side plate, later reduced to $5, was just two sectioned baby-turnip bulbs and scant leafy strands of multifarious rabe greens, arranged prettily with flowers still attached.
Like a new "dive bar" using Nueske's bacon and Caveman Blue on a $13 burger, the pizzas feel overburdened with high-dollar toppings at the expense of utility and value and even flavor. It's a fanciness without real luxury. And that's too bad. Because there's still a great pizzeria hidden under all that handsomeness, if you stick to the old-school pies. All that good dough is smothered by the potatoes and kale.