Now That’s Italian!

IMG_2741Early in 2011, Portland became all Francophiled, Little Bird, St. Jack, and Cocotte all bursting on the scene with great fanfare and popularity, different from the notable Portland French restaurants that came before them because they were reasonably affordable. Although we had a couple more French places come on the scene this year, the trend bursting forth at the end of 2011 appeared to be high end pizza, Via Tribunali and Oven and Shaker both opening their doors within a month of each other, both with wood fired ovens imported from Italy and small, authentic Italian pies (although Cathy Whim’s Oven & Shaker takes a more unconventional road with many of her toppings.)

When I heard about both places, I was really excited, as I’ve always wanted to bring quality pizza to our group, but never found the correct venue (although I’ve always wanted to try Lovely 50-50, they don’t do larger groups on the weekends.) In the beginning I wasn’t sure which of the two new places to select, so kept my ear to the ground and my eye to newsprint to see what people were saying about the two venues. Maybe because Oven & Shaker is in the Pearl and Via Tribunali is in Old Town, it seems like O&S originally was more talked about, and when I mention Via Tribunali, most people still don’t know what I’m referring to. As we had a great dinner at  Cathy Whim’s Nostrana, and a so-so dinner at 23Hoyt (Bruce Carey brought Via Tribunali to Portland) I originally gave O&S the advantage, as the space sounded fun and was supposed to have great cocktails, and Via Tribunali was an offshoot of a Seattle “chain.” Three people I know went to Oven & Shaker in the beginning though, and told me they didn’t really care for the pizza, so the advantage was back to VT, allegedly having wonderful pizza and packed since day one. Once I saw their extensive pizza menu, and learned they had a large communal table you could reserve any day of the week, off we headed to Via Tribunali (although we will probably still do Oven & Shaker some day, as they are supposed to have tasty things to eat besides just pizza.)

Via Tribunali started in the mid-2000s up in Seattle when someone had a hankering for authentic Southern Italian pizza and decided they would do everything possible to duplicate the technique up in the Emerald City (imported wood fired oven, imported Neaopolitan Pizzalolo (pizza slinger from Naples.))IMG_2729 It became very popular, and VT now has approximately four locations in Seattle and one in NYC. Somewhere along the way, Bruce Carey (Zefiro, Blue Hour, Sauce Box, 23 Hoyt) tasted some Via Tribunali pizza, and decided he had to bring the chain to us, down south. This was a long-winded proposition, first finding the proper location, then rehabbing a used clothing store, then bringing the wood fired oven over from Italy brick by brick (supposedly Vesuvius ash brick) and building his space’s centerpiece to perfection.

Although I’ve spent tons of time there during previous periods of my life, unless it’s for a dinner, I almost never go downtown these days, especially downtown proper, and less than that, Old Town. I do know that in previous decades, SW 3rd around Burnside, Pine, and Ankeny were not the best places to linger alone at night, but over the last few years that tourist mecca (it was even onThe Amazing Race!) called Voodoo Doughnut has pretty much made the surrounding area safe by drawing large crowds all hours of the night, and now Ankeny has even become a pedestrian only alley with nice little eateries and bars.

IMG_2743Anyway, although I wasn’t completely sure where Via Tribunali was, I knew it was right across the street from the new part of Voodoo Doughnut, formerly Berbati’s Pan, so I figured it would be pretty easy to find, as there isn’t much else around that intersection at all, that really weird, wide part of SW Third where the street sort of angles. What I wasn’t prepared for was so much available parking downtown on a Friday night. I suppose there’s no place to park around here during Saturday Market, but on this evening, wonderful parking aplenty, and right next to the Embassy Suites Security Office. Score!

It’s hard to know what this space was like before it was rehabbed, but it’s really nice now, brick and wood and hanging blown glass amber lights. You can already tell though, this place might be too small for its popularity, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of space anywhere, it’s pretty tight quarters, especially with the pizza over taking up a big space in the main room (not to mention those folks cooking the pizzas.) The oven is all white, ceramic and gleaming, its fiery mouth full of tasty pizzas. For some reason, maybe because there has been so much mention of the cocktails at Oven and Shaker, but no talk about the drinks here, I wasn’t expecting a full bar, just beer and wine, but sure enough, there’s a nice old looking wooden bar, where Glenda, Cora and Michael were already perched, having libations and waiting for our table. I guess because of lack of room, there’s no hostess station though, so if you want a table or are there to claim a reservation, you have to grab a passing employee, in our case mentioning to the bartender we had a reservation for the communal table, who eventually flagged down the hostess.

The communal table is not exactly a glamorous place to eat, it’s wedged in this really dark space between the waiters station, the door to the alley, and the stairs to the mezzanine level (which I think is decent sized, as there was lots of traffic going up and down the stairs, and certainly a lot of children and babies passing by (which struck me as somewhat unusual for a downtown eatery, but it must be the allure of the family pizza parlor.) There’s a nice heavy wooden table, but you have to perch on these really little wicker stools throughout your meal, and since there’s no place to hang your coat or place your bag, the waiter recommended balancing all the coats on the two empty stools at the end of the table (which mean sort of just throwing your purses and bags under the table. Not exactly first class seating, but it is a pizza place, I guess. At least the restroom was right across from us, something having both advantages and disadvantages. It really was incredibly dark though. At one part, toward the end of the meal, when we were struggling with the bill and such, the manager, Paolo (a real Italian) donated his little LED light to our cause, so we could see what we were doing.

The communal table seats 14, and I had made the reservation for 10, so I knew if I needed any extra room I had some extra seats (stools) to work with.IMG_2735 I was planning on 9.25 (the quarter that little rascal Hank again) but I actually ended up having a nice surprise with my final guest roster, as there had been some confusion between one of the couples, each of which thought the other had RSVPed (neither did) so I ended up with 11.25, but there was plenty of room, so it was a fun surprise, and as hostess, I never get to be surprised over who attends, so it was a nice change. I didn’t even catch on until someone (who was that, David maybe?) exclaimed, hey, you’re not supposed to be here, or something equally delicate.

I must say, as glad as I was to see cocktails, I found the specialty drinks rather expensive for a pizza place, all around $9-$10, which is probably why most people had beer and wine. Glenda and I, both big Aviation Gin fans, did each shell out $10 for the Aviation Cocktail, which was a gin and lemon juice concoction. It really reminded me a lot of a well-made lemon drop, and at least for $10 had a sizable amount of alcohol, mine having quite a kick.

I was a bit surprised that Glenda joined us on this outing, as usually terms like Mexican, Pizza, BBQ or Asian send her running the other way (although to her credit, she did both Trebol and Yakuza with us) so I asked her if the mention of Bruce Carey ownership was what drew her to Via Tribunali, and sure enough, that was how I lured her. IMG_2733(I’ve come to know our Grande Dame quite well over the years, and the tricks I need to do to make her stretch her dining horizon on occasion.) I also was not surprised to learn that she refused to eat or order pizza (or Calzone) this night, quite a limitation on her dining options at this particular joint. VT did have a couple of pastas on their menu, which were: “LASAGNE FORNO AL LEGNO housemade veal ragu, ricotta, smoked mozzarella, grana padano  and MACCHERONI AL FORNO ziti pasta, solea pomodoro, bechamel, grana padano, baked in our wood fired oven” and I wasn’t surprised to hear that Glenda’s plan was to order the lasagna with duck, but when she tried to order it, the waiter (a forthright and personable fellow) told her he did not recommend it, as their pastas were not particularly good. After that, this weird little back and forth took place, the waiter saying all the pizzas were excellent, to get one of those, Glenda saying she did not want pizza, the waiter saying, okay, he would take an order for the pasta, Glenda insisting she did not want it if it was bad, to recommend something good, the waiter saying all the pizzas were good, Glenda saying she did not want pizza … Finally I intervened, suggesting Glenda have octopus and Polpettes (at Luce, I didn’t even know what a Polpette was, and now they are everywhere!!) and Glenda agreed that would work.

Three of us had the Octopus (INSALATA DI POLIPO marinated octopus, arugula, parsley, lemon) and while I enjoyed mine, Glenda found hers relatively so-so. That being said, she did love the Polpettes (POLPETTE AL POMODORO hand-made veal meatballs, solea tomato pomodoro, finished in our wood-fired oven) which were an amazing contrast to those at Luce, these being gigantic and sauce laden, those at Luce being tiny and rather dry (sauceless.)IMG_2724 All the time Glenda was eating these Polpettes she kept exclaiming how delicious they were, and when she finished she declared that she would be happy to get another order immediately. I asked her if she was saying this because she was still hungry, but she said no, it wasn’t that, only that the meatballs were so wonderfully tasty she could eat more (but didn’t.)

Tracy and Peter (who came later, directly from the operating theater, how impressive and physician like!) got some sort of large focaccia/flatbread thing that they shared with the table. I don’t know what it was, as it’s not on the on-line menu (as is also the case with some of the pizzas ordered) but it was delicious, sort of thin and crispy with nice, quality olive oil and delicious cheeses and herbs. This was certainly an evening when I wouldn’t be ordering anything I had not seen in advance from the on-line menu, because as I mentioned before, it was way too dark where we were sitting to actually see the menu.

Other salads ordered at our table included: “INSALATA DI CAESAR – romaine hearts, caesar dressing, anchovies, grana padana, croutons and the

INSALATA DELLA CASA seasonal greens, fresh mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, olives, prosciutto cotto or Italian tuna.” I don’t remember who got the house salad or what it was like, but David shared some of his Caesar with me in exchange for some of my marinated octopus, and while I thought it was fine, it was a bit on the smallish side, particularly since the last caesar salad I had was that crazy monster salad I had at Mextiza with the croutons that were entire slices of garlic bread.

To be honest, I found ordering pizza at Via Tribunali rather daunting, as they have a whole bunch of pizzas that sound so similar, with just a couple of ingredient changes. Here is the list from the on-line universal menu from all the locations …

MARINARA pomodoro, oregano, garlic, olive oil

MARGHERITA pomodoro, fresh mozzarella, grana padano, olive oil basil

MARGHERITA D.O.C. pomodoro, mozzarella di bufala, grana padano, olive oil, basil

QUATTRO FORMAGGI fresh mozzarella, smoked provola, gorgonzola, grana padano, basil

VIA TRIBUNALI (SPECIALITA’ DELLA CASA) mozzarella di bufula, smoked provola, ricotta, spinach, rapini, sausage, cherry tomatoes, arugula, grana padano, basil

PUTTANESCA pomodoro, fresh mozzarella, anchovies, capers, olives, grana padano, picante olive oil, basil

FUNGHI pomodoro, fresh mozzarella, oven roasted mushrooms, grana, basil

PROSCIUTTO CRUDO pomodoro, fresh mozzarella, prosciutto di parma, grana, basil

PROSCIUTTO FUNGHI pomodoro, fresh mozzarella, parmacotto prosciutto, oven-roasted mushrooms, grana padano, basil

QUATTRO STAGIONI pomodoro, fresh mozzarella, parmacotto prosciutto, oven-roasted mushrooms, salame piccante, grana padano, basil

SALAME pomodoro, fresh mozzarella, salame piccante, grana padano, basil

FORMAGGIO CAPRINO pomodoro, fresh mozzarella, goat cheese, olives, grana padano, basil

PRIMAVERA cherry tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, arugula, grana, basil

PIAZZA DANTE pomodoro, smoked provola, cherry tomatoes, prosciutto di parma, baby arugula, grana padano, basil

SPACCANAPOLI smoked mozzarella, ricotta, olives, grana padano, basil, baby arugula or prosciutto di parma

MISTO SALUMI pomodoro, fresh mozzarella, mixed salumi, grana padano, basil

SALSICCIA RAPINI pomodoro, fresh mozzarella, Italian sausage, rapini, grana padano, basil

SALSICCIA CIPOLLA fresh mozzarella, italian sausage, oven-roasted onions, grana padano, basil

SALSICCIA pomodoro, fresh mozzarella, Italian sausage, grana padano, basil

TONI LUPINO pomodoro, fresh mozzarella, italian sausage, coppa, grana, basil

CAPRICCIOSA pomodoro, fresh mozzarella, parmacotto prosciutto, oven-roasted mushrooms, artichokes, olives

SPINACI ricotta, spinach, parmacotto prosciutto, mozzarella di bufala, basil

As I mentioned before, there were pizzas at our table that were not on this list, so I guess I should have looked at the in restaurant menu, but I would have had to set it on fire to actually see it. IMG_2737The bill lists a Porchetta pizza, but I don’t see it on the above list. My guess would be that the Porchetta had several pork toppings, and that Cora ordered it. I also think I heard Tracy say their pizza had tuna on it (I probably misheard) a pizza topping I had in Ronda, Spain when I didn’t understand the Spanish word for tuna. It wasn’t awful, but it was unique for sure, and I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a pizza on this side of the pond with tuna on top (could be for a reason.)

David asked the waiter to recommend a really meaty pizza, and my guess is that he had the Toni Lupino (pomodoro, fresh mozzarella, Italian sausage, coppa, grana, basil.) Your guess is as good as mine who Toni Lupino is, but if she has her own pizza named after her, she must be someone, and a meat lover too.

Funghi were popular, so we had both a Fungi (pomodoro, fresh mozzarella, oven roasted mushrooms, grana, basil) and a PROSCIUTTO FUNGHI (pomodoro, fresh mozzarella, parmacotto prosciutto, oven-roasted mushrooms, grana padano, basil). I think Liz might have had the “plain” funghi, and Michael (who became egg laden this evening)  had the prosciutto and mushroom.

I mentioned to Heidi that I had read that the four cheese pizza was excellent (QUATTRO FORMAGGI fresh mozzarella, smoked provola, gorgonzola, grana padano, basil ) and she was sold once she saw it had gorgonzola. She said it was delicious.IMG_2727 Actually, this pizza was a disappointment of the evening for me, because I probably should have had it, but didn’t. Although asking about this at VT seemed a bit like asking if I could have ice cubes for my red wine, I inquired from the waiter if this pizza had any tomato based sauce. I admit it, if I have a big wad of dough and cheese, I like to have a little tomato flavor to set things off. The waiter said, oh no, no sauce, and a couple people at our table agreed that tomato sauce should not be added to this pizza.  It sounded too plain to me, so I switched to something else.  It looked so tasty. though, and what I did order ended up having too much going on, all of it messy.

Before we went to VT I referred back to a review I remembered seeing in Willamette Week talking about both this place and Oven & Shaker. It liked them both, but seemed to think VT had better pizza in a traditional way. IMG_2739It had all sorts of glowing things to say about Via Tribunali, but the reviewer said he did not like the house special, too doughy. I found this remark rather confusing, because most of the high-end pizza places have one shape of pizza and thickness of crust, so I could bot figure out why this pizza would be any more dough laden than the rest. Once I decided not to have the 4 cheese pizza, I was somewhat at a loss, because as I mentioned before, many of the other pizzas sounded similar to each other. I was hoping to have smoked cheese though, as the times I have had that at Pizzacato it’s been a really good addition.

Once I got the VIA TRIBUNALI (SPECIALITA’ DELLA CASA – mozzarella di bufula, smoked provola, ricotta, spinach, rapini, sausage, cherry tomatoes, arugula, grana padano, basil) I saw what the WW reviewer meant, as this is a long rectangle of pizza with all four crusts rolled in, which makes for a great deal of crust, and also makes it hard to eat, especially with an entire garden worth of arugula sprinkled on the top. Everyone else was fascinated by the different shape of my pizza, so I handed out lots of samples, and most people raved about the different flavors on my pizza, much of the taste coming from the smoked provalone. It had too much crust for my tastes though, and as it was somewhat limp toward the center, each time I grabbed a hunk various toppings fell in my lap. Having to eat something really messy in public really does lessen my enjoyment of it, and finally I basically gave up, as I had more pizza on my clothes than in my mouth. Definitely one of those pizzas where uneaten crust is left when you are finished. Why couldn’t I have ordered a round pizza!!!

I think I tasted about five different pizzas this evening, but after you eat about three similar looking pizzas, you really can’t taste that much difference in my book.IMG_2745 Maybe that’s because it was all genuine Neaopolitan pizza, and to be genuine Naples-like pizza pie, you have to taste a certain way. I guess this is what I like about Pizzacato (which is too expensive, but I still splurge) they have about six different pizzas by the slice each day, and all of the pizzas that they don’t have every day are really distinctive and unusual, so unusual that they probably never appear again (I have the feeling the pizza makers are allowed lots of freedom there.)

Everything went relatively smoothly throughout our dining experience, and almost everyone looked favorably on their pizza, but toward the end everything started to drag on, and it seemed like we might be trapped in Via Tribunali forever. IMG_2734We were allowed three checks at the table, so Heidi and Julian took a separate check so they could make an escape around 8:30 or so, commonly the time Hank gets tired of being out on the town and gets a bit fussy. Tracy and Peter also elected to have a separate bill and to hit the road ASAP, not being interested in the two or so desserts VT offers. Glenda is a big tiramisu fan, and wanted to take the version here for a test drive, and I had decided I would have some too, and Liz was also interested in dessert, but once the first two parties had paid their checks and left, it was like all the staff stepped into a black hole or somewhere, odd, since our table was right next to the wait station.

We finally flagged down the hostess and told her we wanted some desserts, so she retrieved some menus, and she said we could place our orders once out waiter came back. He showed up eventually, but I guess he got confused because Glenda and I were sitting right next to one another, and both ordered tiramisu, (TIRAMISU mascarpone, espresso, lady fingers) so he only brought one for us to share. Doesn’t he know, Glenda and I are not the sort of women who share dessert??? I did not want to wait for another piece though, getting the first round was time consuming enough, so I grabbed a hunk of Glenda’s and gave her the rest, as I had eaten most of my pizza, and pieces of most of the other pizzas at the table, but Glenda had only had two meatballs, so she was probably less full than me.IMG_2751 Besides, Liz’s dessert (MEZZA LUNA NUTELLA chocolate hazelnut calzone) was gargantuan, so I, as well as everyone else at the table, had some of that too. The chocolate center was really rich and dark, and it was quite yummy, much better than the somewhat pedestrian tiramisu.

By and large, the opinions on Via Tribunali were quite favorable, and I think I would have enjoyed my pizza more had I not gotten the one freakish item on the pizza menu. The one time I had pizza on my sole trip to Italy, nearly 15 years ago, I had it in Venice, many, many miles away from Naples, and it was not good. It was an old style pizzeria, and I remember being struck by how the middle aged Italians dressed up to go to the pizza parlor, jackets and ties, conservative dresses, general Sunday go to church finery. The pizza was thin crust, but hard and chewy with ample sauce but marginal cheese and toppings. At the time I remember thinking, oh, to have a nice slice of NY Style pizza. Someone in our group asked if the pizza at Via Tribunali would come sliced, and they were told no, we would have to cut it ourselves. The waiter then explained that in their authentic style of pizza, the grease tends to pool in the center, and if you cut it in advance, the center gets soggy. To be honest, all of the pizza centers still seemed a bit soggy, no matter how long we waited to slice the pizzas.

I am pretty particular when it comes to pizza crust, as I think it makes the pizza, and there have been two places in Portland who served pizza that I thought stood head and shoulders above the rest (and both have been gone for over 10 years.) IMG_2736Long ago, in the space where Southpark has been for over 10 years, there was a casual bakery/pub run by The Heathman called B. Moloch Bakery, which interestingly still has a webpage from 1996. This was a casual place, you ordered at the counter and took a number to your table, but most of the food was quite good. They had a wood burning oven, and made the most wonderful pizza there, thin crust, just a tiny bit crispy but never hard. Probably my favorite crust ever. Also good was Pizza Luna, over on NE Broadway around 17th, a place with very large pizza by the slice, wonderful, thin crust, and delicious sauce too. Pizza Luna was always popular, but the Italian restaurant they were affiliated with and shared their kitchen with finally called it quits, so Pizza Luna went too, a sad day in Portland pizza eating as far as I’m concerned.

Via Tribunali is a “scene” place, so I expect it to do well for quite a long time. As I alluded to earlier though, I think they are probably already regretting their relatively compact space. and especially with the pizza oven being right in the center of the room, I hope they have good AC for the warmer months. It does have a nice old timey feeling to it, and the pizza is high quality, and I’m sure the logistics are much more comfortable if you don’t have 10 or more people perched on tiny stools with all their valuables and such at their feet.IMG_2725 I’m sorry I didn’t see what the mezzanine was like, as it seemed popular, and while the individual sized pizzas are not cheap (the special was $18) the average person could probably take home about a third for lunch the next day if they weren’t sharing it with a whole table of people. I never made it as far South as Naples on my trip to Italy, and I have the feeling I’ll never make it back to that country. That being said, at  least in my journey to Via Tribunali,  I got to see Vesuvius Ash in action.