The more fancy new pizza we see in Portland—the Forno Bravos are firing across the city now, filling the streets with the scent of toasted hardwood—the more you have to hand it to Brian Spangler. The maestro's neo-Neapolitan-style pies with a thin-but-stratigraphic crust and hyper-flavorful toppings have been the best in the city since 2005.
No legitimate challenger has ever emerged—whenever someone says otherwise, feel free to politely ignore the rest of their opinions. Spangler's secrets are many, and include days of proofing for the dough, an electric oven that provides consistency you can't get from wood, and a strict three-topping limit to ensure even baking.
The rest of the formula is pretty simple. The salads are crisp, the beer list is small but well-curated, and there's an arcade room to keep you busy while you wait out the lines, which are more manageable than legend suggests.
The best thing about the artisan-pizza boom from the vantage point of those of us in the Hawthorne District is that things have gotten a little more laid-back at Scholls lately. You can now eat here in about the same time it takes to get a meal at a great many lesser places.
304 SE 28th Ave., 503-517-9951, kensartisan.com. 5-9:30 pm Monday-Thursday, 5-10 pm Friday-Saturday, 4-9 pm Sunday. $-$$$.
On an unremarkable Monday evening, we waited 40 minutes for a table for four at this bustling Buckman pizzeria. That tells you everything you need to know about Ken's, an airy space filled with soused couples in matching Patagonia fleeces, kids running to and from the restroom, and two separate (adult) birthday parties, all presided over by an enormous wood-fired oven.
The focus here is on owner Ken Forkish's pizzas, the crust crisp with just the right amount of char, and chewy enough to brace against generous helpings of sauce, cheese and seasonal toppings. If you see it, we'd recommend the cherry tomato pancetta bomb ($18), with perfectly ripe cherry tomatoes bursting in a creamy blanket of buffalo mozzarella, and the bacon pizza ($16), because the smoked guanciale against the smoked provolone is just too good.
But if you're a heartier eater, don't pass up the pulled pork ($12), a colorful creation whose bright slaw piled atop the crispy corn cake makes it look more like a party favor than an appetizer. And the whoopie pie ($8), two cookie-shaped pieces of devil's food cake stuffed with cheesecake ice cream, drizzled with chocolate sauce, and studded with toffee, is worth skipping your last slice of pizza.
A small but thoughtfully curated drinks list includes a variety of local, French and Italian wines, as well as four local draft beers. But as perhaps befits a restaurant so clearly kid- and family-friendly, the drink our waitress recommended the most enthusiastically was the housemade lemonade ($3).
4039 N Mississippi Ave., 503-281-4060, lovelysfiftyfifty.com.
Lovely's Fifty-Fifty does something that Portland does very nicely: take a familiar classic and jazz it up with an artisanal touch. In Lovely's case, it's the family pizzeria. That pitcher of beer is Upright Pilsner ($16), not Bud. That green salad comes with luxuriant Amish butter polenta ($10), not prepackaged croutons. And that pizza ($13-$20) has one hell of a tangy, earthy crust, with a stretch that rivals the best New Haven pies in town and thoughtful toppings that push harmony over simplicity. Don't skimp on the homemade ice cream ($4 single scoop) for dessert—seasonal flavors rotate frequently.
1401 SE Morrison St., 503-234-2427, nostrana.com. 11:30 am-2 pm Monday-Friday, 5-11 pm Saturday, 5-10 pm Sunday. $$$.
Remember authenticity? A decade ago, it was the bright orange pylon marking the end zone. And thus the adulation for Cathy Whims' Italian bistro.
But the goalposts have moved—today's hottest restaurants tend to borrow and remix. But Nostrana is a classic, focused on authentic Piedmontese custard and thin but springy Neapolitan pizzas you snip up with scissors.
This cavernous space on the corner of a Buckman strip mall also takes wine very seriously, hiring a dedicated sommelier for evening service and maintaining a list that features spumante and orange wine. In fact, our server at lunch knew the wine program better than many beverage directors, giving interesting and informative notes on a $37 bottle of Saetti Rosso Viola. The salads, pastas and pizzas all show a steady, restrained fine-touching that delights traditionalists.
2727 NE Glisan St., 503-239-4444, dovevivipizza.com.
Dove Vivi's cornmeal crust is like no other in town, crunchy-soft like a good croissant and gently corny in a manner that elevates the spot's harmonious pies. Expect combos like the Blue Thyme, with mozzarella, blue cheese, caramelized onions and thyme ($24.75 whole). And though it generally has just two beers on draft, they're almost always good ones, whether Breakside Pilsner or Pfriem Strong Dark.
7783 SW Capitol Highway, 503-234-0330, tastebudpdx.com.
Tastebud's 2015 arrival in Multnomah Village was the best thing to happen to outer Southwest Portland's sleepy food scene since Journeys started slinging grilled cheese bites a few years earlier. The pizza—the highlight of the menu, and doesn't disappoint. Wood-fired, it comes with a variety of toppings, everything from housemade sausage to farm eggs and jalapeños. Crisp salads with dressings that don't overwhelm the greens accompany the pizzas, as do hearty entrees, such as roasted trout with summer squash ($23) and whole chicken with roasted potatoes ($26). Pick up some Montreal-style bagels on your way out the door, too.
A year after disastrously early hype threw Nick and Sandra Arnerich's sunny Buckman ode to Italy into disarray, Renata remains a hive of dazzling talent that can be both perplexing and rewarding in turn.
The high-raftered space—and cursive "Mi Piace" in neon that presides over it all—smacks of Napa, but the service has settled into an easy rhythm that feels local. The pizzas in particular have improved dramatically after early stumbles, attaining Neapolitan char and fine character on the margherita, which drops to $7 at happy hour.
Chef Matthew Sigler's six- to eight-deep selection of housemade pasta ($10-$22) rotates relentlessly, if also minutely—swapping, for example, the innards of its delicately pillowy agnolotti from tender pork to achingly tender beef, or changing out the pork belly and clams on a squid-ink chitarra for an octopus sugo. But on recent visits each pasta came bathed in little a too much salt, as if tasted through a sniffle of summer allergies or before adding salty cheese. It was a persistent flaw that nagged dish after dish of otherwise delicately sumptuous food.
Related: Portland's Best Pasta
And while you can certainly wine it up here, it's the cocktails that truly soared. A dining partner refused to try anything else after a $12 vodka-elderflower-strawberry drink called 2+2=5, whose floral and fruit notes were aired out with lemon and a splash of prosecco.
The bar, unsurprisingly for an Italian spot, is also Negroni-obsessed—offering a $20 flight of three with different vermouths or amaros—even going so far as to happily whip up a variant using dry local Imbue and slightly sweeter Aperol in place of Campari. The drink was a moment of cheery discovery, buoying a restaurant with a lot of baggage.
1505 NW 21st Ave., 503-946-1853, please-louise.com.
Slabtown's Please Louise is a nice little neighborhood shop whose pizza denies any specific geographic lineage, with a thin but low-tang crust that's best thought of as New American pizza. The crust is light on bubbles, and the few on there don't get baked anywhere near blackening. It's perfect for those who maintain that Ken's Artisan and Apizza Scholls "burn" their pies. All five pies we tried at Louise were well-composed but not especially adventurous and are matched by the decor, music and neighborhood.
711 NE Dekum St., 503-954-1702, firehousepdx.com.
At Firehouse, the unpretentious culinary anchor of the Dekum Triangle in Woodlawn, there are no bad choices: one of the best landscaped, most inviting patios in the city or a cozy 100-plus-year-old dining room with exposed brick walls and dark-paneled booths. The kitchen works from a well-chosen palette of rustic ltalian selections, deftly fried cauliflower with a lemon creme fraiche ($5), lean wood-oven fired pizzas like the smoky fennel sausage, onion and mozzarella ($15) and a meltingly tender flank steak over arugula and crispy discs of potato ($21).