In a forgotten corner of Northern Carolina, on the second day of our up-country road trip, we stopped and ate a medium pepperoni pizza with a side of spicy wings, accompanied by an artless packet of Ken’s Steakhouse bleu cheese dressing. “Full House” played silently on a corner-mounted television behind Malcolm’s head, and I nodded politely toward him while attention-rapt by Uncle Jessie, Joey and Daddy Tanner ‘s hatching of an ill-conceived scheme of Stooges proportion. The teen-skirted waitress didn’t provide anywhere near enough napkins to staunch the flow of orange grease, but she did diligently refill our plastic glasses of sweet tea. We ate like third grade social studies elite, wiping our shiny faces with slick hands, then shoved each other back in the cab of the truck for another 300 mile haul.
The above anecdote is to prove that we are not snotty about our pizza. We are democratic food lovers, who just happen to have been weaned in the cradle of pizza civilization. Yet if Wooster Street was our Euphrates, we now reside in pizza Babylon. Based on our first two experiences in Portland, I think we’ll still drive to Modern Apizza when we crave an authentic pie. I almost retracted my lazy insertion of the overused “authentic” but I’m going to let it be. New Haven pizza is the taste of my childhood, and to me it is a platonic ideal and standard of greatness. Nothing compares to the topless tower of a spinach draped white, decorated with lemon wedges, slightly burnt and irregular. In high school, we ditched fifth period to get high and maraud the Pizza Hut buffet; at least thirteen of my freshman fifteen can be attributed to the unforgiving nature of late night Domino’s deep dish; and after college I ate my fair share of post- Piano’s plain slices with heaps of garlic powder and red pepper flakes for good measure. I am Caligulan but discretely discerning in my enjoyment of stringy cheese, red sauce and bread food. I hope somewhere in Portland I can sate such relentless craving.
Bonobo likely won’t do the trick. The smallish restaurant is just up the street on the Brackett corner, and I had read that it was good, and so we met up with friends there on our second drowsy night in town. I ordered carelessly, assured that I would pick up what was being laid down and love it without question or equivocation. This was sadly not the case. Maybe lamb was an odd choice, and maybe I unconsciously wanted to challenge and subvert these upstarts, but when I looked at the little unceremonious hunks of meat studding my otherwise unimpressive pie, I was distressed and crestfallen and sad. The Morocco was also made with goat and feta cheeses, which tasted as tangy as a Cypriot shepherd’s sandal. The sauce had a nice bite, but did not meld with the other, dissonant flavors. I left the table hungry, which has not happened since the Great Got-Dumped Depression and Subsequent Food Strike of 1999. I always finish my pie.
Last night, lightly peckish but not interested in cooking, we toward the Old Port for a slice or something like it. I will leave it to my husband to exalt this unlikely subgenre, but will merely say that in New York the humble slice is given pride of place on paper plate and plastic tray. You can eat it while walking in Midtown, folded over and cramming into mouth hole; you can eat it in a steamy dining area, accompanied by a Cel-ray soda and the sad, single secretarial set; you can eat it, as I mentioned, after a night of booze, boys, and bands. It is, and I do not use this phrase lightly (or ever), all good.
By the time we got to Otto Pizza, we were hungrier than we thought. I was half-anticipating soup-Nazi style antics and thus prepared, approached the counter with unusual boldness. I like to make my indecision known, so all can witness how cute I look while furrowing my brow, considering toppings. Instead, I was all business. I promptly ordered the white, milliseconds after learning it was a mushroom and cauliflower piece of action. Another unconventional choice.
Was this strategic? Malcolm does his litmus with the plain or nearly so, while I like to test the marginal as an indication of what’s at heart, apparently. The easygoing order taker slid our choices from the peel and we waited, in the tiny, high-heated space. We rang up at about seven dollars and were on our way, Manhattan style, avoiding derelicts and other obstables.
The slices, to our delight, were good. Maybe not supreme, not all-time. But tasty and interesting and well-made. Mine had a pocket of basil pesto I wish had been a lazy river. Malcolm’s worked through the go plate with appropriate dexterity, and in fact, I think it just melted away. How’s that for eco-friendly? These pies had character, depth and flavor, and I will return to Otto for future offerings with higher hopes.
Overall, we’ve been unimpressed by pizza in Portland, so far. But, as I said, our bar is set sort of high. But we do not give up. We are starving for affection. There are many other places to try, and I’ll go back to Bonobo, considering my first impression was addled by lack of sleep and feelings of disorientation. And when all else fails, I’ll roll up my sleeves, bust out the yeast, and make some thin crust pizza at home. Such is my commitment to dairy, dough and tomato.
Photo: richardpaulmondor aka studmuffin