36 Southwest 3rd Avenue, Portland OR 97204 (map); 503-548-2917
Pizza Type: Traditional Neapolitan
Oven Type: Wood-fired
Price: $10-18 for 12-inch pizzas
The order I gave to my waiter at Via Tribunali was immediately followed by a series of caveats about the unusual appearance of their pizzas. One, apparently, would be produced like a normal pizza and then folded to resemble a rectangular calzone, and another would have the toppings divided unequally into seasonal quadrants atop the pie. Thankfully, the litmus-test Margherita came with no bizarre heads-up prior to pizza arrival. While I waited for these inevitable surrealist masterpieces to arrive, I sipped on a $3 beer in Portland's most expensive pie shop, watching the bartender remove multiple hippy hackeysackers and transient musicians from the building's entryway. An uneasy feeling began to grow, and I wondered if I had become trapped in the Twilight Zone of pizza.
Typical of Neapolitan pizzas (which you can read all about here), the steaming Margherita ($13) arrived unsliced. And when it did, I knew all was once again right with the universe. Bright hits of acidic, salty seasoned tomato and pungent garlic set the tone for a flavorful slice. The oozy, milky rounds of fresh mozzarella added balance to the punchy sauce, and the oil-soaked basil was thankfully not overused or burnt. The crust was layered masterfully with pleasant char, a brittle exterior bite, and an airy, chewy interior. My roughly-sawed pie quarters were so delicious and craveworthy that they disappeared within three hasty bites each. Quick consumption was key, since as the pie cooled, the mozzarella began to seize, compromising the texture. A green tinge of fresh olive oil and the bright funk of garlic lingered post-swallow. This pie was classic Neapolitan, rife with ancestral respect.
Via Tribunali lovingly pays tribute to traditional Italian pizzamaking with their Quattro Stagioni ($16), a pie that represents four seasonal ingredients divided into quarters. The mushroom quarter offered a rustic, yet unexciting, blast of well-cooked mushrooms. I expected something more haute or Pacific NW woodsy, but got a more conventional button mushroom. The anchovy section was overpowering and excessively briny, and bleed-over caused the two closest quarters to bear unnecessary fishy notes. The pepperoni was the highlight, with a crisp, charred crown on each disc, and a spicy pool of neon orange oil that accented the richness of the mozzarella. The chunky cut Parma prosciutto was surprisingly delicate as a pizza ingredient, and as mentioned above, was unfortunately complicated by a salty sea flavor. This pie relied heavily on the great seasoned tomatoes that Via Tribunali uses as a base, which gave an overall harmony to the many elements involved.
The eponymous Via Tribunali ($18) was the pie I was most interested in. This pizza/calzone/stromboli hybrid looked somewhat like a square bialy topped with arugula. The bready salad parcel contained much more inside: fresh ricotta, mozzarella di buffalo, grana padano, spinach, sausage, and broccoli rabe. The combination of flavors was like a collision between Italian stuffed bread and stuffed shells. Fun to eat, the horizontal slices curled into an Italian burrito, or sandwich wrap of sorts. Some bites were overly veggie, and the fatty, smoky housemade sausage could have used a touch more spice—but I'm nitpicking. Overall, the Via Tribunali had a rustic, earthy tone and a variety of interesting textures which didn't quite satisfy a pizza craving, but offered its own unique take on the utilization of pizza dough and toppings. In the stuffed bread world, this would rate very highly.
In addition to expertly made Neapolitan pizza, Via Tribunali offered friendly, informative service and a cozy atmosphere in a particularly grungy section of Southwest Portland. Despite the inflated tourist-trap prices, I would recommend this restaurant solely on the strength of their Margherita. It is definitely one of the best I've had of this genre, in which few examples really have the goods to shine. If money's an issue, they offer mini-pizzas and cheap drinks on a special early bird/late night menu (which explained my oddly inexpensive pre-meal beer). Turns out it wasn't the Twilight Zone after all, just happy hour.