Photo by Avila/EPDX
Will Fain, the owner of North Portland's pizza cart Handsome Pizza, is a self-proclaimed pizza nerd, and the dough that Fain has developed over the past five years is the product of intense investigation. "There's this whole online pizza nerd community that I was a part of. It was all about experimenting at home and stealing ideas from the internet," he says with a smile. Fain's pizza-making experience started with a short stint at a wood-fired pizza restaurant in New Zealand. He was a dishwasher, but he learned a little bit about turning pies in the oven and would test out his skills for staff meals. "The first pizza I ever made turned out more like a calzone. I didn't quite come off the peel and it flipped over itself — it was a disaster."
Thanks to trial and error (and yes, many hours on the internet), Fain's dough is exactly what you want when craving a thin-crust pie — it has an attractive char and holds up to the locally sourced toppings, like creamy ricotta, kale, salami picante, and creminis. Eater chatted with Fain about the details of his dough, the wood that burns (or doesn't burn) in his oven, and the future of Handsome Pizza.
On the dough:
After working at SE's Portobello Vegan Trattoria for about a year and focusing on the pizza menu there, Fain ventured out on his own and took over the former Pizza Depokos cart in 2011. "When I took over this business, the previous owner had a sourdough starter that he was using, so I incorporated that into my recipe as well," Fain says. "The starter is a culture that I keep in a mixture of flour and water. It feeds off the sugars in the flour, and every time I make dough I re-feed the mix. The benefit is you get a little bit more flavor out of a sourdough starter, than you would out of a commercial yeast."
About the wood:
"That's a question I get all the time: 'What kind of wood do you use?' And I am less concerned about the type of wood — I use hardwoods generally — but I'm much more concerned about how dry and cured it is. I'd rather have a dry-cured soft wood like a fir, than a damp oak." If Fain starts with a damp wood in the morning, it takes an extra half-hour to get the fire going; when using dry, it takes about 10 minutes. "Damp wood smokes more, it's less efficient when it burns, and it's a real pain in the ass to start," Fain says.
On the oven:
"The oven is a little bit weird for a pizza oven, most pizzerias have domed ovens," Fain says. "This one is barrel vaulted." Cooking time varies depending on the size of the pizza, but the oven runs ideally between 650 and 800 degrees. "The heat will be a little bit different for the two sizes," Fain says. "Smaller pizzas I like to cook at a higher temperature and take about two minutes. I do larger pizzas at a lower temperature for about two to three minutes."
On the pizza making process and wait times:
Since opening, Fain has been the only "pizza maker" at his cart. But with a recent new hire , Fain is relieved to have another employee on board to form dough and work the oven. "I don't throw the pizza dough," he says. "I don't have any particular dogma about it, but I'm just more comfortable stretching it on the table, picking it up, and sort of rolling it over my hands."
With such a small staff and space, wait times for pizza can run a little bit long on weekend nights. "It's seasonal," Fain says. "Lunch tends to be pretty quiet in the winter. Weekend evenings are definitely my busiest times: Friday nights we can have like an hour and a half wait." Fain recently timed himself making a large cheese pizza, and from start to finish, it only took about four minutes. He says it's helpful that "a lot of the folks live in the neighborhood, so we can just give them a call when their pizza is ready."
On Handsome's biggest sellers:
Of course people usually have their go-tos when ordering pizza. "There are different factions: different people love different pizzas," Fain says. "The people who are most loyal love the Rico Suave or the 'sausage y fromage.' There's also a handful of people that only order margaritas." Fain's favorite? "Right now, I'm pretty partial to the Steve Lieber (crimini mushroom, shallots, tomato sauce, garlic, cream, and a little rosemary), one of our specials, but it varies." After all, he gets to eat pizza every day.
On pizza fanatics:
As we know, pizza can spawn heartfelt debates (thin crust, thick crust, sauce, cheese, you name it). Fain says, "I've made more connections, rather than been put off by customers that are really into pizza. You get transplants from New York who you can have conversations with about the pizza they had in their neighborhood growing up, which is really fun for me."
On the future of Handsome Pizza:
There are plans to develop the corner of North Greenly and Killingsworth at the beginning of next year. Fain says, "I'd like to stay in the neighborhood. It's possible that I can move into the new building that will be here. But I have a few months to get my act together and figure that out." He's not in any way panicked about this eventual move: "It's something that I've been thinking about in the hypothetical for awhile. That's pretty common for most food carts, this space has been a really fantastic sort of starter business."
· Handsome Pizza [Official site]
· All Pizza Week Coverage [Eater PDX]