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Dec. 3, 2020

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Vancouver Pizzapedia: Rachel Pinsky’s guide to pizza in Vancouver

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Not the ’90s: Mt. Tabor’s Strawberry Fields wood-fired pizza topped with feta, bacon, basil, balsamic reduction, candied pecans and pickled red onions.
Not the ’90s: Mt. Tabor’s Strawberry Fields wood-fired pizza topped with feta, bacon, basil, balsamic reduction, candied pecans and pickled red onions. Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian files Photo Gallery

Let’s be real — almost any pizza, hot out of the oven, reduces even the choosiest foodie to a drooling Homer Simpson. This combo of carbs and melted cheese is something we feed ourselves to feel better — to lull ourselves into a carb-induced coma. It’s the food equivalent of a hot bubble bath.

Self-medication is close at hand. Clark County has a TON of pizza places that serve various styles of pizza. To prepare for this story, I did a Yelp search and a Google search for pizza in Vancouver. I went through all the pages of the search and made a list of the places that were truly in Vancouver (Yelp and Google seem to think when I search for Vancouver, I want Portland).

Then, I ate. I didn’t even get to Heathen Brewing, Blazzin Pizza, or Bellagios. A person can only eat so much pizza in two weeks; but, to have total pizza knowledge of the Couv, I will try these places soon and report back.

Surveying the evidence, a pizza pattern emerged. To be fair, I came up with criteria for each type. In evaluating anything, it is important to keep in mind what the thing is supposed to be. You can’t watch a Will Ferrell movie and evaluate it like it is one of those Oscar-grubbing movies where a woman falls in love with a fish and they dance like Fred and Ginger. Likewise, every slice of pizza needs to be evaluated by criteria appropriate for the type of pizza it is trying to be.

Here, friends, is my Vancouver Pizzapedia, my guide to pizza in Vancouver:

Authentic southern Italian

Naples, Italy is the birthplace of modern pizza. Yes, flatbreads are found all over the world; but, this combination of wheat-flour dough slathered with volcanic-soil enriched San Marzano tomatoes, then topped with fresh mozzarella di bufala or fior di latte and herbs, and blasted in a 900-degree wood-fired oven was born in southern Italy. I had the pleasure of tasting this Holy Grail of pizza in Naples 15 years ago. The memory makes me drool.

• Recommended: Pizzeria La Sorrentina. Fortunately for us, we have Pizzeria La Sorrentina. The pizzaiolo/owner, Daisuke Matsumoto, aka Chef Dice-K, was trained in southern Italy (Sorrento), and his pizza tastes exactly like the pizza from Naples. Being trained as a pizzaiolo in southern Italy is as serious as training to become a brain surgeon (maybe more so). Dice-K recently won sixth place in the Pizza Napoletana category at the International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas. Eat his pizza here and save yourself a ticket to southern Italy unless you enjoy crazy driving, a lackadaisical approach to garbage collection, and the Bay of Naples (the bay is bellissimo — you should go see that).

’90s pizza

This is the double-thick shoulder pads and teased and Aqua-netted hair of pizza. When I try to imagine who invented this pizza, I think of Jeff Spicoli from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” At its most disturbing, you will find a pie with a chewy, gooey, yeasty crust that goes on forever, as if the pizza dude forgot where he left the dough and let it rise for far too long. An avalanche of toppings are foisted onto this oh-so-wrong crust — the concoction ends up as thick and twisted as Jerry Garcia’s beard at the Winterland show in ’67.

Here’s a checklist to identify ’90s pizza:

• Is there chicken on the pizza?

• Do alfredo sauce, barbecue sauce or other things instead of tomato sauce grace the crust?

• Do the pizzas have crazy names (Jerry G, The Mooie Macho Taco Pizza, Drunken Hawaiian, Breath Buster, Garden of Eatin’, The Meltdown)?

• Can you get cheap beer in plastic pitchers?

• Did the server ask if you would like ranch dressing on the side?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions, you are probably eating ’90s pizza. I know this pizza well because as a college student, I served it to drunk people after football games on Saturday nights at Pizza Bob’s in Ann Arbor, Mich. When in a den of ’90s pizza, I can hear Blues Traveler and smell a slight whiff of the B.O. of my deadhead manager, Steve. In researching this story, I found that ’90s pizza was good back then and it still can be good now.

• Recommended: Juliano’s; Bortolami’s Pizzeria. I admit that I don’t really like ’90s pizza. I have been disappointed with places where there is just too much dough and it isn’t even baked all the way through. To add insult to injury, these crappy carb-bomb crusts are topped with gummy cheese and cheap toppings.

None of the above was to be found at Juliano’s, where I could see three different pictures of Jerry Garcia from my seat while rainbow-colored teddy bears dangled overhead. I ordered the Jerry G (what else do you order in this House of the Grateful Dead?). My waitress, Sariah Zambramoe, recommended that I add fresh garlic. She also said that she thinks that anyone wearing tie dye or arriving while the song “Truckin’ ” is playing should get a free pizza. This woman has great ideas, so I thought adding the garlic would be wise.

Thank you, Juliano’s, for restoring my faith in ’90s pizza. The crust was not excessive (as I feared it would be) — it was crisp and just the right amount of chewy. It was topped with loads of chunks of fresh green pepper, onions, sausage, and fresh garlic (thanks, Sariah). The veggies were fresh and crisp and all worked well together. The sausage was abundant and good quality fennel-y sausage.

Across town, Bortolami’s is a cycle-themed (bicycles, not motorcycles) gem hiding in plain sight near Columbia River High School. Order at the counter where you can also get a good microbrew (54:40 Pale Ale was on tap when I was there), unlimited fountain soda (refills!), and Humm kombucha. Behind the cashier is a signed, framed photo of legendary cyclist Greg Lemond with a personal message praising Bortolami’s Pizza.

All the pizzas have Italian-sounding names. I opted for the Gruppo — pepperoni, Italian sausage, beef, olive, mushroom and a blend of mozzarella and provolone cheeses. My son had plain cheese.

I had a good feeling about the place when we walked up because the aroma of pizza baking wafted through the back door. When our pizzas arrived fresh from the oven, they were perfection. The crust was a nice mixture of crisp on the bottom with a bit of a chewy top — not excessive crust, just enough. The toppings were fresh and delicious and the cheese mix (mozzarella and provolone) was extraordinary — rich, creamy, perfectly melted. Sorry, ’90s pizza, I apologize for ignoring you for so long.

• Honorable mention: Leonardo’s.

• Other examples: Blind Onion, Vancouver Pizza Company.

Artisan pizza (aka foodie pizza)

This pizza is a response to the excesses of ’90s pizza. It is a return to pizza’s southern Italian roots combined with the local food and artisan food movements. Artisan crust resembles the crust you will find in Naples — fresh dough, smaller pies, fire-blistered edges. The toppings are more judiciously spread and are house-made and farm-fresh. Alfredo and barbecue sauce don’t have a place here. This is the kind of pizza that people living in a big foodie cities would wait in line for hours to eat and then immediately share on Instagram.

• Recommended: Nonavo Pizza, Rally Pizza, Three Sixty Kitchen and Bar. There are no false notes here. The pizza made at all these places are carefully constructed and crafted with great skill. Alan Maniscalco and Shan Wickham of Rally Pizza crossed the river from Ken’s Artisan Pizza, and their arrival has greatly increased the quality of local pizza. Joey Chmiko and Alder Suttles of Nonavo are beloved by local farmers and the folks at the Vancouver Farmers Market for their strong commitment to using local produce. Three Sixty Kitchen and Bar turns out consistently good pies in a pleasant setting with reliably good service.

Foodie brewer’s pizza

It is not surprising that people who are serious about brewing beer are also serious about the food they serve with it. Foodie brewer’s pizza is ’90s pizza meets artisan. This combines nostalgia for pizza draped over a Ms. Pac-Man console and an appreciation for all the great things that have happened to food in this country since. The pizzas have funny names (The Bill Murray, The Hipster, D.N.F) and quirky combinations with a 2018 sensibility. You get house-made sausage and farm fresh veggies and artisan crusts.

• Recommended: Mt. Tabor Brewing; Hopworks Urban Brewery. When you enter Mt. Tabor Brewing’s natural-light-filled open space in Felida, the first thing you will notice is the wood-fired oven that is the heart of this establishment. Pizza pies come out crisp with fire-kissed edges. The topping are super fresh and house-made. They put strawberries on a pizza called Strawberry Fields — a good example of the unconventional impulses of ’90s pizza mashed up with the more recent movement to use local produce.

If you go to Hopworks Urban Brewery, expect a wait. This place is super popular, especially with parents who don’t want to hire babysitters but want to drink good beer and eat good food (this is me). Although, the ’90s-ness of the pizza selection at first frightened me, I have learned to trust Hopworks. Their Pork-U-Pine (HUB Brewer’s Whiskey BBQ base with pulled pork, fresh pineapple, red onion, and cilantro) made me realize that barbecue sauce can be good on pizza; especially, when paired with a pint of fruity-mango-y Vancouver IPA (or VIPA).

Regional pizza

Chicago, Detroit and New York are big circles on the pizza map, but only the latter style can be found in Clark County. New York pizza comes in large slices served on thin paper plates. It has a thin crust, a bit of tomato sauce and cheese. It is designed to be eaten while standing. There’s some controversy over whether you fold it, cinch it, or make a crust taco. Whatever you do, please don’t use a fork and knife — using these utensils to eat a slice of pizza is an insult to all of New York City.

• Recommended: Vinnie’s.

I’ve walked by this storefront across from the Kiggins Theatre a million times. I’m grateful that I finally went inside. I had a sausage and mushroom slice. My experience behind the counter in college taught me that these are the most treacherous toppings in the pizza world. They show if the owner is willing to invest in quality.

My slice at Vinnie’s was perfection — just as good as any slice I’ve had in the Big Apple. The crust was thin and crispy, slathered with a tasty tomato sauce. The sausage was high-quality crumbled Italian sausage. The mushrooms were fresh. The slice had a good fold-ability. I like to fold my New York slices length-wise and then hunch over, allowing the grease to drip on my plate. It isn’t a massive slice, but it was delicious.

Indian pizza

Manhattan meets Mumbai: Indian pizza could only be pure genius or genuine madness. Fortunately, it was the former.

• Recommended: N.Y.C. Pizza. OK, this wasn’t much of a contest because there’s only one place in Vancouver (and maybe the entire universe) where you can get Indian pizza. This fusion masterpiece is worthy of its own category. N.Y.C. Pizza is a small pizzeria off Southeast Chkalov Drive owned and operated by the Singh family. The owners’ daughter, Kiran Singh, said, “We wanted to give the pizza more flavor by using the Indian spices that we use at home.” Kiran recommended the Kamal’s Special (named after her mother) and the Punjabi Special. So I ordered a half-and-half.

The Kamal’s Special has chana masala (marinated garbanzo beans with curry spices), onion, fresh ginger, bell peppers, jalapenos, and is topped with a shower of fresh cilantro. The Punjabi Special has tandoori chicken, ginger, onion, fresh hot peppers, roasted garlic, and fresh cilantro. The smell of this pizza as it arrived at the table was intoxicating — curry, ginger, fresh cilantro. It also looked gorgeous — bright green, red and white with strips of orange tandoori chicken.

In the past, I have avoided getting chicken on pizza. Chicken blasted in a pizza oven becomes dry and flavorless. But, the tandoori chicken on the Punjabi special is marinated and then cooked on the pizza in the pizza oven; which, is kind of like a tandoori oven. And, pizza dough isn’t completely different from naan — they are both flatbreads. None of this makes any sense until you come to N.Y.C. Pizza and try the Indian pizza. And, you NEED to try this pizza. You’ll never again want Indian food and pizza to be served separately.

Fast-food pizza

We all know about fast-food pizza. Most of us have eaten it. I have seen foodies swallow a warm slice of Domino’s at a kid’s birthday party hoping that no one is looking. I lived on Little Caesars pizza bread with marinara sauce for a year (washed down with Boone’s Farm wine) when I was in college. I wouldn’t recommend that diet. But, even now, I have been known to scarf down a pepperoni slice in my car in the Costco parking lot.

I won’t deny that when eaten hot and washed down with some fountain soda, these greasy slices taste good. Fast-food pizza also has a variety of flavored and stuffed crusts. Stuffed crust, while not as genius as Doritos Locos Tacos, is one of those things that happens and you think to yourself, “Why did it take so long for someone to decide to stuff more cheese in the crust?” Nonetheless, I think bacon-stuffed crust takes things too far.

The general rule is that these pizzas all taste OK if they are hot out of the oven.

• Examples: Domino’s, Pizza Hut, Papa John’s, Papa Murphy’s, Little Caesars.

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