In just under a year, Jerry Benedetto has gone from tinkering with recipes for Chicago-style tavern pizza in his home kitchen to opening one of Portland fooderati's most anticipated new restaurants.
His is the stuff of fond Midwestern memories: a thin, crispy crust with square-cut slices, preferably with sausage and hot giardiniera. It's a pie ubiquitous from St. Louis to Green Bay.
Benedetto, 33, grew up in Chicago, and moved here two years ago with his fiancée, Lauren, a Wisconsin native. Noticing a total lack of tavern-style pizzas anywhere in the Pacific Northwest, he decided to make it his COVID hobby, trading out store-bought dough for homemade, tweaking his grandma's sauce recipe and making his own sausage. Lauren posted some pictures on Instagram, and soon, neighbors and co-workers were begging for a chance at those pizzas, ordering through his DMs.
The waitlist jumped to 15 months and a cult following was born. One guy showed up decked out in Bulls gear and teared up at the smell. Another woman brought some home to her mother who was in hospice, who then shared with her daughter previously unheard stories from her life in Chicago.
"I was like, 'Oh shit, we have something more than pizza,'" Benedetto says. "Luckily, I like making pizzas. I always wanted to do my own thing but never knew what that was."
Benedetto is among a slew of enthusiastic hobbyists and out-of-work food service industry workers pivoting during the pandemic to make small batches of foods they love—from Chamorro barbecue chicken to mouthwatering Vietnamese pastry—and posting them on social media for those in the know to snag.
But Benedetto has hit the big time: He quit his day job and is testing out his recipes on real kitchen equipment in the kitchen at Bear Paw Inn in the Brooklyn neighborhood. The plan: release order times one night each week for pickup at the bar. Benedetto says he's still not ready to set an opening date—he wants to get his pizzas back to as good as he was making at home.
"If this were a recipe, it would be a tablespoon of luck, a teaspoon of putting yourself in the right situations, a pinch of things happen for a reason," he says. "Without COVID, I don't even start making pizzas."
Here are four more local cooks doing it for the 'Gram:
Noodle Gang PDX (@chuckdanger)
Just like his other industry comrades, Isaac Ocejo found himself reeling when his job at Jackknife evaporated and his catering business with his wife also dried up. Ocejo, 30, got to thinking about the year he spent working at dearly departed Wafu, learning ramen at the hip of sous chef Jane Hashimawari (now of Ippai).
"I was bored at home and unemployed for the first time in my life, and I was like, 'I'm going to get back into making noodles,'" Ocejo says. He tried a few bowls at home, which friends happily gobbled up. When the owners of Jackknife offered the use of their kitchen, he jumped in, making chewy wheat noodles by hand, curing his own pork belly and building out the tare, or flavor base, all himself.
Bowls run $20 for pickup, or he'll deliver for an extra $5, available at his Instagram handle, @chuckdanger. Orders have jumped to as many as 65 in one week, and fans tag their posts #noodlegangpdx.
This week, Ocejo dropped off a package with instructions for reheating a tantanmen with his handmade noodles, bok choy, chicken schmaltz oil, sesame tare, chashu pork and a marinated egg, with a sunomono salad on the side, a hearty and rich bowl of comfort.
Ocejo says the Instagram model of food service "is a response to the lack of leadership we've seen from our government on trying to keep people safe and with any form of direction."
"It's a way for the food service industry to take care of ourselves," he says, "to be inspiring and make good food while being malleable."
Hey Chaudy (@heychaudy)
When beloved Vietnamese karaoke bar Yen Ha on Northeast Sandy Boulevard closed in 2019, longtime manager and co-owner Anh Tran started messing around with recipes for bánh patê sô—flaky pastry stuffed with peppery ground pork or vegan Impossible meat. Always a family business, Tran said his aunt helpfully told him his first efforts "sucked" and gave him tips.
Soon enough, Tran got it dialed in and is selling them for $25 per dozen for meat, $30 for a dozen vegan from his Instagram handle, @heychaudy. The patê sô have exploded in popularity. He's making hundreds a week now, all from scratch with his mom's help. (I recommend eating at least two in the car, still warm from the oven and bursting with flavor.)
Tran is also making different Vietnamese soups for pickup every Tuesday, like bánh canh cua with heaps of Dungeness crab and handmade tapioca noodles, available at his personal handle, @_2anh.
"I haven't worked in such a long time and the patê sô and soup have been helping me pay bills and such," Tran says. "Hopefully, it keeps busy so I can eventually do something with one of these things."
Vegan Cooking With Sara Bird (@birdcooksfood)
Sara Bird, 43, is still doing her day job in the hair industry but has just started making vegan meals each week for those who reserve via her Instagram, @birdcooksfood.
Bird says she initially thought of doing catering, but with a lack of events to cook for, she's starting on the socials. Bird mixes it up by making whatever catches her fancy: This week, it's orange cauliflower, salt-and-pepper tofu and dry fried green beans for $20 a person, on the heels of a creamy vegan leek risotto topped with a mountain of balsamic roasted carrots and fried mushrooms.
"I enjoy cooking as a way to relax and get creative," she says. "I love to eat, and experiencing new dishes and cuisines I can't necessarily find in a restaurant here means that I have to cook them to be able to eat them."
Chamorro Chicken (@ramon.cooks)
With stints at Le Pigeon, Crown Paella and Beaker and Flask, Ramon Navarro has a Portland kitchen pedigree. But it was quarantine-driven stagnation that brought out the inspiration to make Guamanian-style Chamorro barbecue chicken.
Navarro takes orders on his Instagram, @ramon.cooks, for pickup on Sundays and Mondays. Your $20 gets you half a barbecued chicken juicy enough to do Cardi B proud, a mound of spiced red rice and a side of finadene, cucumber and onions in a soy and vinegar sauce that perfectly complements the rich, smoky bird.
"It's food I know from family gatherings through childhood and it's a cuisine that is very much underrepresented," says Navarro, whose father is from Guam. "I figured I'd see if people wanted some, and they do."