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Portobello Vegan Trattoria
Portobello Vegan Trattoria first caught my eye while reading about New Zealand transplant/pizza chef Will Fain on various food sites. I knew Fain had a knack for homemade Margherita oven-hack pies with fresh mozzarella and a hankering for a Di Fara pepperoni slice, so to find out that he'd signed on as cheeseless, meatless pizzaiolo had my head spinning. I knew this would be a challenge for me as eater, and must certainly be one for him as cook. But their website advertises "traditional, Neapolitan-inspired pizzas," so I was eager to check it out.
The friendly waitress was extremely tolerant of my pizza inquiries. She informed me that the restaurant uses a Bakers Pride gas pizza oven, which reaches a temperature of 700°F. Sounds like things are moving in the right direction, although that struck me on the lower side of the Neapolitan cooking range. After assurances that two pies would be the magic number in terms of stomach space, it was time to order.
The first pie I tried was the Marinara ($9). All of Fain's pies are crafted from fresh, daily-made dough using Caputo Type "00" flour. This particular pie was topped with a chile-fennel marinara, olive oil, garlic, and fresh basil.
The first thing I noticed upon picking up a slice was how extremely thin and rigid it was. The immediate aroma of char presented itself. There was a good helping of chunky tomato sauce, which, to my surprise, did not weigh down the dainty slice. Upon tasting, I noticed a fat punch of fresh garlic. Too much for some, definitely. The fennel seed adds some true herbal pungency to the pie. The pizza was perfectly seasoned, with just enough salt. The hint of red chile left the slightest heat behind, nothing that would offend the more pussyfooting palate. Unfortunately, the cornicione proved toothsome and doughy without quite enough snap or crispness.
The second of the two pies was the Piscialandria ($12). This was on a similar crust, with a caramelized onion base and topped with herbed black olives, capers, fresh oregano, and "walnutesan" (a vegan cheese substitute made from walnuts and nutritional yeast). I savored most those bites with smoky, earthy capers and salty, grassy olives to cut through the layered sweetness of the caramelized onions. This pizza lacked the saltiness that made the previous one a success, perhaps due to the lack of marinara. Even the mildly flavored faux cheese was sweet when I tried it solo, but it's used sparingly so as not to offend.
Again, the undercarriage was crisp and paper thin, while the end crust was doughy and underdeveloped. I wondered if a slightly thicker pizza would stand up to some more cooking time and get a little crisper on the outside.
I washed down my pizzas with a house-made orange soda ($3), which was notable for its freshness.
It would take a revolutionary experience for this vegan scene to peel me away from my cheese-loving pizza haunts, but Portobella Vegan Trattoria wasn't quite to that level. My favorite pie was the marinara, which lacked any cheese or meat substitute; it's the kind of pie a vegan could find, eat, and enjoy at a more conventional pizzeria. I love a good tomato pie, and may try this again if I hear that the crust has improved. For now, though, I'd pull this recommendation out of my arsenal for vegans only.
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