Portland, Oregon: Oven & Shaker
Oven & Shaker
1134 NW Everett St, Portland OR 97209 (map); 503-241-1600
Pizza Type: Cali-meets-NW-meets-Neapolitan
Oven Type: Wood-fired
Price: $12-15 for 12-inch pizzas
Just like the bistro-style burger at Le Pigeon and the Fish Sauce Wings at Pok Pok, the pizza at Nostrana was a menu item deemed worthy of forming the foundation for a whole new restaurant. This formula is an apparent trend in the current Portland culinary scene, and the genesis of Oven and Shaker relied heavily on the weight of chef Cathy Whims' wood-fired pies. With the exception of cutting the pies before they arrive at your table (a Nostrana no-no), O&S's pizza style mirrors the mix of Italian tradition, Pacific Northwest seasonality, and farm-to-table sensibility that made Nostrana so popular.
Oven and Shaker offers $5 off pies during their nightly happy hour, and that's the best way to combat inflated Pearl district pricing. The Cauliflower ($7 for a 12" during happy hour) was topped with dainty, mildly caramelized florets of its namesake vegetable. Briny olives and vinegary Mama Lil's peppers fought for dominance, overpowering the sweet and earthy pecorino and cauliflower. Sparsely placed strips of red onion offered yet another layer of pungency, further burying the delicate nuttiness of the cauliflower which could only be enjoyed by picking petite pieces off the pie.
The Wild Fennel Sausage ($10 for a 12" at happy hour) was indeed fennel-y, and the slightly crisped potato medallions brought unexpected pockets of texture while absorbing some of the rendered pork fat. The pizza used a smoked mozzarella which just wasn't quite smoky enough, and clunkily cut raw scallions needed to be brushed aside to avoid palate fatigue. Delicate chile use and a mild tomato element added some acidity and zip, but were not present enough to add much overall. In essence, this was a fancied-up sausage and onion pie with a few curious bites here and there.
The Margherita ($7 for a 12" during happy hour) with salt-cured anchovy add-on ($3) was the highlight of the meal. The little fish preserved the balance between the fatty, fishy, and salty components, allowing the basil, cheese, and tomato to stand out individually. The artistically presented fresh basil was served uncooked atop the pie to preserve its garden freshness. The basic sweet and salty interplay of the tomato base showcased high quality ingredients used simply. Each flavor present complemented another, bringing an overall harmony to this pie. The cheese was the only problem area; the delicate, milky fresh mozzarella was cooked to a strange grainy texture which resembled ricotta in the final presentation, yet maintained a robust dairy flavor.
The integrity and quality of the crust was probably the best thing about Oven and Shaker's pies. Superficial charring provided the majority of the flavor to the cornicione, which varied from chewy, to brittle and flaky in spots. In contrast to the floppy character of a typical Nostrana pizza, the pies here had a relatively crisp and nicely spotted undercarriage, making the cut pie approach successful. Part of what keeps this pie from sagging may be the uniformly petite toppings. I get the strategy, but visually, it lacked that rustic quality. It's the price you pay for structural integrity, I guess.
After weighing the pros and cons, I decided that I enjoyed the pizza at Oven and Shaker (with caveats). I do think that work needs to be done on flavor combinations and visual presentation to bring these pies into the top tier of what Portland has to offer. Also noteworthy, is that I've based my opinion on the happy hour prices; I don't think the value or quality is quite up to par with the full dinner price of $15 per 12" pie. Lovely's Fifty-Fifty has the genre locked down at this price point, but the happy hour deals at Oven and Shaker are hard to beat.
About the author:Jim Bonomo was born and raised in Milford, Connecticut. He is currently eating and drinking his way through Portland, Oregon. Once all the pizza and beer is gone, he promises to go back home. You can follow him on Twitter at @goodbyeohio.