Back in 2019, pizzaiolo Craig Melillo would spend his Saturday nights in his crowded cave of a St. Johns restaurant space, Gracie’s Apizza. He’d pull naturally leavened pies, topped with house-made mozzarella, from the wood-fired oven, which would arrive at tables crowded with salads and glasses of wine. He would banter with regulars — almost all St. Johns locals, like Melillo himself — and gently rotate wheels of dough in his hands, letting gravity stretch each pie into a thin crust. On Sundays, he would spend the day at home alone, drinking tea, relaxing before the week ahead.
In the last few years, that pattern disappeared almost entirely. Instead of chatting with customers in his restaurant, he would spend evenings fulfilling piles of online orders, frantically folding pizza boxes until he sold out. “The soul of the shop was kind of lost,” Melillo says. “I was so close to closing in 2020 because I was heartbroken, putting all this food in boxes.” He passed on the restaurant space to former pop-up Pastificio d’Oro, and tried to find a way to reclaim what he lost.
On Wednesday, May 3, Melillo will reopen Gracie’s in a bigger restaurant space, a corner of Leavitt Avenue he partially shares with the team behind Starter Bread. Walking in, Melillo will still hold court, building pizzas at a counter facing the dining room. He’s ditching the online order system, though people can call them in. Instead, he wants people to order from him personally, chatting about the daily pie and wine options before sitting down at one of the restaurant’s wooden tables. He’s hoping this new space will allow him to slow down and reconnect with his community — while making room to play.
Melillo grew up in serious pizza territory: Connecticut, where New Haven-style reigns supreme; he was a devotee of Sally’s, and fell in love with the craft of pizza-making. He worked at legendary Brooklyn pizzeria Ops before opening a small cart in Portland, drawing the attention of local pizza nerds for its flavorful, char-dotted crust and meticulous application of toppings. When the cart became a full-blown pizzeria, it ended up on Eater Portland’s map of essential restaurants.
At the new Gracie’s, Melillo will retain the same ethos he had at the original restaurant: Making the best pizza he can. Made with a Camas Country Mill rye starter and Cairnspring Mills flour, the pizzas will emerge from a 57-inch Fiero Forni wood-fired oven, as opposed to the 42-inch oven at the previous restaurant. He’s not going to make more pizza with the extra space, however; he wants to make better pizza, cycling pies out more for more consistency. The restaurant will always have a handful of its classics — a tomato pie, a ricotta pie with green garlic and a variety of peppercorns, a briny pie with capers and olives, a calzone, etc. — plus other spontaneous pies made with produce from Oregon and Washington farms like Flying Coyote, Wobbly Cart, and Pablo Munoz Farms. The opening night pizza, for example, uses Crescendo cheese, leeks, asparagus, fermented onion honey, and mint.
Another crucial tenet of Melillo’s approach to cooking: making what he can himself — if it actually makes the dish better. For instance, the pizzaiolo will make his own mozzarella for pizzas on and off, swapping it out for a favorite buffalo mozzarella when available. He also may start topping pizzas with straight curd, to create something almost akin to a burrata pie. Melillo is making his own capicola for pies or the restaurant’s antipasti, served alongside a two-year-fermented onion honey. And, as always, the restaurant will serve house ice creams, made with everything from Grains of Paradise or pink peppercorn to spruce tips or magnolia flowers. “Ice cream is play for me,” he says. “It’s ice cream; it’s fun.”
When it came to actually designing a restaurant space, Melillo was lost. He knew what he was sort of going for, but would quickly get overwhelmed with the potential routes. “I don’t like picking out tile,” he says. “I like making food.”
The kitchen was a little easier. Open-format in style, the main pizza station sits directly next to the order counter, so Melillo can easily hop between taking orders and making pizzas. The counter and cooking spaces were designed to allow Melillo to literally rotate through talking with customers, assembling pies, throwing them in the oven, and slicing the finished product. “I tried to take what ended up being really cool about Gracies, me kind of doing everything, and decided to put me in the middle, like a monkey in a cage,” he says. “People are going to be right in my face, which is cool.”
With the help of Jane Smith from Dame Collective, he gathered some tables and chairs, and started thinking about the vibe he was going for. He landed on jade green tile for behind the pizza oven, and lots of warmly colored woods for seating and counters. Portland restaurant wallpaper go-to Lonesome Pictopia offered a Dogwood print for an accent wall, and Melillo kept the exposed brick of the space to give it a lived-in feel.
Where he landed, in terms of his overall aesthetic and feel for the space, comes from a John Ashbery poem, the Ecclesiast: “You see how honey crumbles your universe/Which seems like an institution — how many walls?” The poem now hangs on the restaurant’s door, a sign for his neighbors, a signal for what’s ahead.
“I wanted the idea of honey — it’s slow, it’s sticky, it’s sweet,” Melillo says. “There’s like an organic nature to the way things happen; things have to kind of unfold.”
Gracie’s Apizza opens Wednesday, May 3, at 7304 N Leavitt Avenue.