Before I moved to Portland, I didn’t think too deeply about pizza. Five years into editing Eater Portland, I now have an elaborate set of questions I run through each time I cover a pizzeria opening: Where do you source your flour? Which grains are included in the blend? Are you using conventional yeast, or is this a sourdough crust? How long is your fermentation? At what hydration? Do you make your own cheese? Are you using a wood-fired oven, a Pizza Master?
It’s not like I set out to become a pizza geek; rather, I simply get to cover a lot of pizzeria openings. Between the superlatives lobbed by international pizza consultant Anthony Falco and Modernist Pizza duo Nathan Myhrvold and Francisco Migoya, Portland’s reputation as a pizza city has grown dramatically over the last five years, with good reason: Oregon’s long growing season and agricultural diversity give pizzaiolos access not just to peak season produce for toppings, but also fresh flours for doughs. Thus, countless talented chefs have become painstakingly thorough in developing pizza dough recipes, opening dialed-in pizzerias in every corner of the city. Some live in breweries or food carts; others have their own space. Some go hyper-seasonal with toppings; others pull from a culinary lexicon outside of Italian or Pacific Northwestern. Countless use a sourdough crust made with Pacific Northwestern grains — often a flour blend from Cairnspring Mills or Camas Country Mill.
I want to be clear: The quality of the neighborhood pizzeria has grown substantially within the last few years. That said, Portland’s culinary scene has gained national acclaim for its eclectic nature and the range of cuisines represented. So why are pizzerias still proliferating?
The pandemic essentially poured a gallon of Miracle Gro over the city’s crop of pizzerias. In 2020, diners were clearly seeking comfort food and takeout that traveled well; pizza fits in both categories. Meanwhile, both home cooks and chefs found themselves forearm-deep in sourdough, experimenting with breads and, in many cases, drifting into the world of pizza doughs. The yearning for nostalgia and carbs as a balm for a fraught world seemed to come not just from the diner, but the chef. “Dough is like a therapist,” says Candy Yiu, who is working to open a pizzeria in the former Malka space. That’s how this rush of new pizzerias feels — not just like a business decision, but a personal one.
Opening a restaurant is rarely a foolproof financial choice. Margins are infamously small, inflation remains an issue, and the market is relatively saturated. People don’t do it because they want to make money; they do it because they love it or feel compelled to in a way outside of reason. As a food reporter, I’m often searching for restaurants that fill culinary gaps in our landscape. Still, when I walk into any of these many pizzerias, I feel a deep-seated gratitude for their existence.
Ultimately, the leveling up of the neighborhood pizza parlor might be as essential as opening something that feels big and scene-y or less familiar. “I wouldn’t have opened this place if I weren’t in the neighborhood I’m in,” Craig Melillo told me on a recent visit to Gracie’s Apizza in St. Johns. He knows his regulars. He takes orders and turns pies in his wood-fired oven. The pizza is great, but that’s beside the point.