We don't need any more fancy Neapolitan pizza in Portland.
Fancy Detroit-style square pies? Maybe. Chicago deep dish? I could see it. But if you want to make wood-fired pies with thin, crisp crust, sauce them up with San Marzanos and top it off with Mama Lil's peppers, GTFOHM.
Which is exactly what Alan Maniscalco and Shan Wickham did.
Maniscalco was a co-owner and the chef at Ken's Artisan Pizza, the second-best pizza place in town according to our rankings in our just-released Restaurant Guide. But when it came time to do something on his own, he sought his fortunes up north, in the suburb of Vancouver.
Related: Vancouver is a Suburb of Portland
Killian Pacific, the Vancouver-based developer Portlanders know from the Goat Blocks project and the new office space going up in the burned-out, tagged-up former Taylor Electric building site, had recently taken over the Garrison Square retail center on deep East Mill Plain Boulevard and wanted to turn the plaza into the epicenter of 'Couvian cuisine. So it lined up a top-notch bottle shop and two experienced Portland restaurateurs, BJ Smith of the Smokehouse chain and Rally's Maniscalco.
Rally Pizza is Vancouver's first great restaurant—it will likely make a strong push to be in the Portland area's top 50 when we do next year's Restaurant Guide. It's the first spot I'd make the drive up the 205 for.
And if Smith can get things worked out at Smokehouse Provisions, it will be part of a powerful Northern Alliance. Two visits in the early days at Smokehouse were not what we've come to expect from the pitmaster, who we've lavished praise on in the past. We had issues with bone-dry brisket, unbalanced cocktails made by servers when someone no-showed their shift, and hot sides served lukewarm. The soon-to-be TV star, who will be on the upcoming season of Top Chef, has a lot of work to do.
"When you're opening a place of this magnitude, it's going to be a challenge," Smith says. "We're 140 seats, open lunch and dinner every day. In Portland, we've been able to pull a lot of talent from people we know and places we know, or at least look at someone's résumé and see, 'Oh, you waited a table at Ox, you clearly know how to wait a table.' Just having no real gauge of people you're hiring has been a factor."
But this is unchartered territory. In bringing Portland restaurateurs north, Killian is following in the footsteps of breweries like Trusty and Mt. Tabor, which opened up north when the market down south seemed too saturated.
"We were pretty skeptical, but obviously the owners have a great track record," says Maniscalco.
So Rally Pizza leaned into it, opening an unapologetically suburban spot modeled on what Maniscalco and Wickham would like to see in the area around Des Moines, Iowa, where Wickham's family lives.
"The whole point of Rally is to be suburban. We kind of came up with this concept," Maniscalco says. "When we're in Des Moines, we end up going out to eat and it's pretty chain-oriented. The food is not particularly good but people show up for it. We thought about opening something there, but we have a kid still in high school. We thought, let's look in the Portland 'burbs. Let's make the same concept work in the Portland 'burbs."
And so they did—with the added bonus of the kind of ultra-rich custard you'd get in Iowa.
Rally Pizza is a cavernous, Nostrana-scale dining room and Vancouver's finest restaurant. The pies are good—top 10 in the region—and the cocktails, protein dishes and desserts are top-notch.
Under the careful eye of Maniscalco, who claims most of the recipes at Ken's Artisan Pizza as his own, Rally is the most exciting pizza project the city has seen since P.R.E.A.M. and Pizza Maria.
Cocktails run $9 to $12 and are uniformly excellent, developed by Maniscalco as his go-to home cocktails and mixed by bar manager Trina Paquette. The biggest revelation was an "industry margarita" ($11), made with Cocchi Americano and house sweet-and-sour mix instead of triple sec. It was ever so slightly more bitter than a normal marg, with an earthy bottom note below a citrusy burst. It's the kind of thing you'll want to order by name at other places. Good luck: It was developed by Maniscalco as a batch cocktail to serve to friends at his own house parties. The Rally Cap ($9)—Rally's version of a spritzer, with Cappelletti, Amaro Cio Ciaro and soda—was likewise refreshing.
When it comes to desserts, Rally joins Lovely's Fifty-Fifty at the top of the ice cream game, serving sundaes and concretes built on custard with 14-percent butterfat that's further enriched by egg yolks. The concretes ($6) feature house-baked pastries as blend-ins, like a triply chocolatey blend of devil's food chocolate cake and frosting. The sundaes ($7) are beautiful, layered-up creations served in heavy table glasses, easily feeding two. But maybe just get one per person. My favorite of all was the "clouds in my coffee" sundae with rich mocha sauce, little chocolate pearls and, as you're about to hit glass, a bottom layer of thick, creamy ganache.
If you want to indulge in a double-dessert date, plan on one pie and go deep on the salads and sides. Though the lineup of protein courses and baked is thin, everything we had was well-made.
Two of our visits found the seasonal salad in great form, with bright pink watermelon radishes and juicy golden beets. We were likewise impressed with a plate of roasted veggies, well-seasoned and served up with a note-perfect paprika sour cream and crushed hazelnuts.
I was blown away by a dish they call "pork and duck" ($13), the Rally take on a porchetta. It's their way of delivering a big hunk of meat that's cured so it doesn't distract from their pie-eyed focus. They take a skin-on belly and trim it down, then make the trim into a sausage and roll the belly around the sausage. It's topped with a mildly spicy Korean-inspired slaw with mirin, green onion, kimchi and sprouts to cut the richness, then whipsawed back into absurd richness with a runny fried duck egg.
The pies are a lot like Ken's, though slightly thicker and with less char than the ones Maniscalco made at Ken's. Partly, he says, they were backing off the blackening "just a little bit," to cater to the 'Couve crowd, but mainly the bottom of the crust gets a little firmer since they're using a gas oven, which takes about twice as long to finish a pizza.
The white pies, like a mushroom-based daily special that used oven-roasted chanterelle mushrooms, tend to be a little less aggressive than I like in their seasoning, but anything with red sauce is very good. I especially liked the pepperoni ($16), which uses a little umami-intensive Parmigiano-Reggiano along with the mozzarella and that magical pepperoni that curls up into crispy little cups.
Is a pizza with fancy "grease chalices" a little déclassé compared to imported soppressata? Maybe. But this is the 'burbs, man.
GO: Rally Pizza, 8070 E Mill Plain Blvd., Vancouver, 360-524-9000, rallypizza.com. 4:30 pm-close daily. Smokehouse Provisions, 8052 E Mill Plain Blvd., Vancouver, 360-768-5140, smokehouseprovisions.com. 11 am-9 pm Monday-Friday, 10 am-9 pm Saturday-Sunday.