Is it possible that Portlanders are being spoiled rotten with pizza?
With each new pie-maker that moves into town, the reaction, increasingly, isn't excitement and anticipation but more of a sigh: "Ugh. More pizza?" Chalk it up to the paradox of choice—at a certain point, the more options humans have, the more cognitively burdened we become. So when it was announced that the Star, a California-based boutique chain best known for deep dish, would be opening its first location outside the Bay Area in the Pearl District, it seemed like the business might face a cold reception from a population suffering from cheese-and-dough overload.
But before advocating for a pizzeria moratorium, remember what the city's pizza scene looked like a little more than a decade ago. It was a time when Ken's wood-fired disks were still rare and the perfection of Apizza Scholls created well-deserved hype and hunger-inducing wait times. Recall the pizza options of your youth—for me, as a kid in Newberg, that included takeout from Little Caesars with about as much flavor as the box it came in, wedges served buffet-style at Izzy's and greasy, giant wheels of pepperoni from hometown favorite Abby's.
That's why I welcome the Star—variety and accessibility is never a bad thing, so long as each new addition is up to par with the others. And the pizza here, for the most part, holds it own.
Portland became the second home for the brand in early June, when the eatery opened inside the space that had been occupied by Paragon restaurant for two decades.
Co-founders Jon Guhl and Brian Sadigursky started the Star—then Little Star—in 2004, about the same time as Portland's pizza renaissance got underway, serving deep-dish, cornmeal pies. It popularized a style largely unseen in San Francisco at the time, and after expanding to four locations, it made the bold move of jumping into Portland's competitive market.
The former Paragon space is even more cavernous now—the private-event room has been done away with to make way for more seating. Also abandoned is the minimalist-chic setting in favor of more glamorous accessories that better reflect the Star's luminary reference. The smoldering, ruby-red banquettes could've been swiped from a set in Old Hollywood, while massive, flat-paned glass chandeliers with at least eight tiers dangle like upside-down wedding cakes. The lighting wouldn't be out of place in a 1980s Vegas hotel, and while they'd come off as completely gaudy on their own, the shimmering rows of liquor bottles and crimson nailhead-trimmed stools manage to make them look like the pillar of elegance. And it's nearly impossible not to be stopped in your tracks, even as a passerby, when you spot the bar's breathtaking centerpiece—a black-and-gold mural of a creature that looks part Egyptian pharaoh, part Eyes Wide Shut sex-party guest.
The menu is a tale of two crusts: deep dish and thin. Surprisingly, the Chicago-via-NorCal style that earns the Star most of its accolades was outdone by the leaner, less-flashy foundation of dough. I kept diving back into the meatball deep dish's ($23/$31) swimming pool of sauce, a stew of chunky and seductively juicy tomatoes walled in by the signature cornbread crust, that went from sweet to tart to sweet again with each bite. But the golden-brown base, which was, to its credit, sturdy and chewy, distracted from the lovely whirlpool of ground beef and pork, mozzarella and singed ricotta, bringing an overly sweet note that was just out of harmony—imagine taking your favorite pizza and sprinkling a box of corn flakes on top.
I'd instead navigate diners to any number of the cracker-crisp pies, particularly the pesto chicken ($23/$31). A hypnotic, basil-colored spiral drizzled around the pizza compels you to drop whatever else is occupying your mouth at that moment and dig in. The pesto's herbaceousness against sweet onions and earthy, meaty mushrooms is too good to pass up.
Both my server and a notice on the menu warned that pizza prep can stretch to 45 minutes with a full house—especially those deep dishes. Get your order started early and spring for an appetizer to help pass the time. The roasted broccolini ($8/$15) arrives like a tumble of tiny trees that have been blown over in a hurricane, and the delicious debris from that storm—clumps of Pecorino Romano, fresh garlic and chili flakes—are matted in the stalks' leaves. If you'd like something that's a little more of a project, the sourdough batard and roasted garlic ($6) is a finish-it-yourself loaf. Instead of already being baked on top of the bread, you control the application of a blend of butter and extra virgin olive oil as well as mild cloves so wonderfully caramelized, it's worth popping one into your mouth.
Sure, in Portland, you can buy pizza of all shapes, sizes, crusts and origins. And while the Star doesn't necessarily strengthen the city's less-developed deep-dish game, there's enough novelty here to hopefully quiet critics who worry about having too much of a good thing.
EAT: The Star, 1309 NW Hoyt St., 503-300-7827, thestarportland.com. 11:30 am-10 pm Sunday-Thursday, 11:30 am-midnight Friday-Saturday. Happy hour 3-5 pm Monday-Friday.