West Linn, Oregon: BJ Willy's Woodfired Pizza
BJ Willy's Woodfired Pizza & Café
An integral part of any Portland Christmas season is a trip to the meccas of big box shopping. Away to the suburbs we go. This year, I had a pizza plan to ease the pain of crass consumerism. Would lunch at BJ Willy's Woodfired Pizza & Café, an off-the-radar spot twenty minutes outside of Portland proper, reveal a diamond in the rough? Oh yes, my friends: what I found was worth the I-205 traffic. Just call me the Indiana Jones of cheese, sauce, and crust.
Walking into the café, I immediately noticed the massive wood-fired oven promised in BJ's signage. The remainder of the establishment fell somewhere between kitschy Italian bistro and sports bar. But there was real wood burning in that cavernous oven.
After ordering a standby (Margherita), a supposed favorite (The Fire Pie), and the dark horse (Mac and Cheese pizza), I approached the oven to chat with the young man shaping the dough.
The temperature inside the BJ Willy's oven typically hovers around 800 and 850 degrees Fahrenheit, and they fire the thing up every morning at nine a.m. to prepare for the day's baking. Besides pizza, they use the oven for single-serving s'mores. I noticed the pizzaiolo rolling out the dough balls instead of hand-shaping, which concerned me a bit.
The Margherita (10", $11.99) was sampled first and clearly the weakest of the three. The topping application style here could best be described as hearty and loaded, a combination that doesn't necessarily make for a good Margherita. The sauce here is a bit pasty and cooked down for my taste, and the cheese outweighed the crust 3-to-1. Of the three pies, this is one which looked good but failed in slice form due to its extreme weight. The rolling of the dough disc produced a crisp-outside, chewy-inside, and overall flatbready base which blistered and charred nicely in the wood oven.
The Fire Pie (10", $12.99) featured the spicier toppings off BJ Willy's menu. The pizza was topped with mozzarella, pepperoni, salami, spicy sausage, fire-roasted jalapenos, and unfortunately, some slices of mealy, pale fresh tomato. The tomato slices were quickly dispatched, which made for a more appealing slice both visually and flavor wise. The house-fire-roasted jalapenos were a highlight: they provided an additional layer of char and smokiness and a surprisingly fresh jolt of real pepper heat. The salty crust brushed with olive oil complemented the smoky and meaty flavors of the topping combo. My one criticism of the Fire Pie involved the slightly dull sausage bits, which came across as more Jimmy Dean crumbles than moist fennel-injected porky delight from a local butcher. Had the sausage been the sole topping, I'd be more concerned. But in the Fire Pie, it's just one note in a decadent symphony of flesh.
To my surprise, the best pie of my trip was the amazingly creamy and flavorful Mac-N-Cheese pizza (10", $11.99, pictured at top). Ordered with the suggested addition of bacon, the slice had dual layers of crispness from both the perfectly browned pork and pasta edges, and the nicely charred crackery floor of the pie. In between, rich and supple bechamel-based macaroni and cheese was layered with care, and provided a nice spring when I took each bite. Yes, it's pizza blasphemy. But it's delicious blasphemy.
Putting aside the idea that any place with a traditional wood fired oven must make traditional pizza is a liberating experience. Cast your pizza snobbery aside, I say, and cross the line from Portland into the suburban maze of Clackamas county. I really wanted to try that wood-oven baked S'more but I was just too full. And when I leave a pizzeria full, that's always a good sign.