Epicurious Eating: Pizzicato
Bending the rules of pizza making
Published Thursday, 10-Sep-2009 in issue 1133
Never does the Pacific Northwest come to mind when we think pizza. Nor do carrots, peanut sauce or marinated shrimp, which rank among the unlikely pizza toppings that have given Pizzicato its reputation for turning the table on convention.
What reportedly began as a “hole in the wall” in Portland some 20 years ago has flourished into a mini chain of pizzerias confined mainly to Oregon, with two locations extending their colorful tentacles to Encinitas, and more recently, Bankers Hill. The company has long prided itself on using hand-tossed dough and whole-milk cheeses while sourcing various ingredients locally whenever possible.
In a recent visit to the Bankers Hill eatery, we discovered a range of gourmet pies that beckon strikingly to Southern California’s pizza renaissance seen during the late ’80s. From the “pollo” section, for instance, there are Wolfgang Puckish pizzas layered with barbecue or basil chicken. Their cheeses range from feta and Fontina to Gorgonzola and mozzarella. Or if you’re looking to push the envelope further, the Thai pizza introduces teriyaki chicken to a daring fusion of mozzarella and peanut sauce. And it’s quite good.
Venture further down the list and behold pizzas crowned with lightly marinated shrimp, such as the delightful Bangkok pie that also summons sweet roasted peppers, julienned carrots, sesame and crushed chili peppers into their ambitious schemes.
From the menu’s “verdura” category, we were particularly fond of the puttanesca speckled with Roma tomatoes, artichoke hearts, black olives and feta. We sampled it as a standard-size slice yanked from the display case near the order counter. All too often I find that slices yield fuller flavors compared to whole pies hot from the oven because their ingredients are afforded extra time for steeping into the crust, which at Pizzicato, take on an additional soaking of juicy olive oil.
An obligatory selection of “traditional” pizzas is available for whiny New Yorkers, who understandably can’t find pizza that fits their criteria in this town. Chi-Towners, however, are plain out of luck, as Lefty’s in Mission Hills is just a few miles north for curing those deep-dish hankerings.
We tried the “sausage combo” mantled with smoked mozzarella and black olives, which tasted pungent and untraditional in combination. I can’t rave much about the semi-fatty sausage either, as it lacked those famous bursts of fennel you find back East. But kudos to the tomato sauce for defying most San Diego versions. Pizzicato adds discernable doses of Italian herbs – oregano being key.
Sidetrack from the nearly two dozen pizza selections, and you’ll find peripheral items such as Caesar salad that is fiercely garlicky (the menu warns you of this), but in an addicting sense. There’s also basic caprese, an arugula-pear salad, Chinese chopped salad and “double dose” garlic bread.
If Pizzicato entered into a panini war, the Italiano would win by a long shot. It’s made with large round ciabatta buns capturing a slew of spiced cold cuts, sharp provolone, basil aioli, tomatoes and lettuce. “Very close to a decent muffaletta — minus the spreading of chopped olives,” I said to my companion as he vowed to return for the sandwich. As for the Tuscan meatball hero, it was so-so. I might have guessed what a staffer confirmed to us — that the meatballs aren’t homemade. Not bad, but not sensational. Just a generic meatball sandwich that you can pick up at any sub shop.
Pizzicato’s atmosphere is clean, minimal and bright. Moss-green walls are adorned with framed black-and-white photographs of urban San Diego landmarks. But the place cries for soundproofing to mute the noise of dishes as they’re bussed into an open bin parked next to a noisy soda and ice machine. We arrived to a gaggle of giggly women and a couple of restless kids in the dining room. Until they dispersed, visions of plush ceiling panels swirled through our aching heads.
Casual pizzerias come in all shapes and sizes. Few of us could live without them. Pizzicato fills a niche for neighborhood folk looking for a break in the norm, giving low-key Portland a place at the table for spinning dough and then topping it with plucky adventure.