When Gavin and Delane Blackstock moved to Portland from Los Angeles in 2005 after a lengthy stint at renowned Zelo pizzeria, they brought a precious pizza secret with them — the recipe for Zelo's unique cornmeal crust, handed down from now-shuttered Vicolo Pizzeria in San Francisco.
Rumored as having originated from a master Chicago pizza maker but developing its own West Coast identity during the '80s California cuisine renaissance, this thick, crisp, flaky cast-iron-baked shell has since become the heart and soul of the Blackstocks' wildly popular Dove Vivi, a spirited neighborhood pizzeria that opened its cozy 11-table Kerns strip mall digs in 2007. Eater sat down with co-owner Delane Blackstock and captured a few of her deep (dish) thoughts on ingredient synergy, why the crust calls the shots, and the beauty of mustard on pizza.
Blackstock on why it's great to be #3:
"We're the third generation to have the recipe: first it was Vicolo, then Mike (Freeman) took it from Vicolo to LA for Zelo, and then we brought it up here," Blackstock explains. "The history of our crust is really important to me — it was a gift that our friend Mike so generously gave to us. It has always been with people who learned it and loved it and then brought it somewhere else because they figured people elsewhere would enjoy it too, and that's really special."
The creative pizza process:
Explaining that she sometimes thinks of Dove Vive's pies more as gourmet food than just pigeonholing them as pizza, Blackstock reveals the mind-mapping behind the menu's sophisticated synergy of ingredients. "When I develop a pie, it's about the balance," she says. "Like the Grape and Brie [pie] — first I think, what can we do that will balance the Brie? Grapes are a natural pairing as they're tart and tannic and sweet, so we use them along with some onions for savory and then add rosemary and balsamic and olive oil. Or the lamb pizza — that came about because we love kebabs, so we made a cumin-orange ground lamb and added cilantro and tomatoes and feta cheese and Zuni Café pickled red onions. That together is a kebab, and it's so good as a pizza."
Not that things always go as planned in the pizza lab:
"Sometimes we'll think, this combination is going to be really good, but then something is missing," she says. "Like, we had pancetta and garlic scapes so I put them on a pie, and it was good but super mellow... We sat on it for four days, we couldn't figure it out and it was driving us crazy because the pie was good, but it just wasn't to that point where you bite into it and think, 'this is IT.' Then we added lemon juice and it was perfect. So we started serving it with a slice of lemon because even if the juice sat there for just a bit it wasn't right, it had to be added right before you ate it. Finding that one thing were looking for is fun, but sometimes frustrating."
The crust calls the shots — thanks to their 19-ounce doughballs:
"Our crust is flaky and crispy and very sturdy, it's own force, and it's such a rich crust that some ingredients completely fall flat because the crust is such a contender," Blackstock says. To keep up with the demands of serving 200-300 eat-in and takeout diners daily, the kitchen staff arrives at 7am to produce 100-130 pizza shells, par-baking them in a 600-degree oven so they'll crisp when cooked to order, which takes roughly 12-15 minutes. Only three staff members know how to make the coveted cornmeal dough balls, which isn't a job for the faint of triceps. "The dough balls are huge and heavy, and when they're done rising you have to pat them and push them into the pans, and it's very physical, it's really hard on your body," says Blackstock.
To sauce or not to sauce?:
Often eschewing one of the basic building blocks of classic pizza preparations — sauce — the Dove Vivi kitchen experiments with more unconventional foundations, with surprisingly palatable results. "Our pizza isn't limited to having to have a good marriage with marinara or an olive oil-garlic base — we use marinated roasted onions, smoked tomatoes, mustard, all these different things as a base to take the pizza to a whole different level," Blackstock says. "Like the bratwurst pie has a mustard and honey base, and people are like WTF, there's mustard on a pizza? But it's really really good with the sautéed cabbage and housemade bratwurst, and as a pie it's the perfect combination."
On Dove's cheese options:
"Fontina, smoked mozzarella, aged mozzarella and provolone, we always have those stocked, and feta and goat cheese" Blackstock says, though she admits a bias for a non-traditional pizza cheese: blue. "It's so good with the crust, when it's featured those pies really stand out — there's something about the Toscano and the Blue Room and the Eggplant."
Dove Vivi's inadvertent European expansion:
While Dove Vive doesn't have any current plans to expand, they do have what Blackstock calls a "cousin" restaurant overseas — born accidentally after a group of British students happened upon the pizzeria a few years ago. "A few years ago, there were these Oxford grads who bought a bus and drove across America and they came here and were like, 'this is what we want to do, we love this,'" Blackstock recalls. "One of them was working for Lehman Brothers and the other at an import export business, but they begged us for nine months to teach them our pizza and finally I said, 'Fine, let's do it.' I think I saw that starry-eyed part of what we had at first in them. So they quit their jobs and flew us over to England, and they'll be open two years in July. The name of the restaurant is Otto, that was the name of the bus they drove around the U.S."
And finally, sweet endings:
When Blackstock and her sister, who manages the pizzeria's front-of-house, were growing up in Alaska, they worked as crew members on her father's fishing boat in the Aleutian Islands, baking cookies for all the fishermen — and as Blackstock explains, their chocolate chip cookie recipe has served them well in their restaurant life as a diplomatic tool. "We really just make three things here — pizza, salads, and zuccotto, so it's kind of silly that we offer chocolate chip cookies, but in the beginning we'd make them so that when we screwed up people's orders, we could give them a cookie to smooth things over," Blackstock says. "So they were just our tool to butter people up, but now people have grown accustomed to them, so we can't get rid of them!"
· Dove Vivi [Official site]
· All Previous Pizza Week Coverage [Eater PDX]