DeNicola’s turned out to be the perfect finale to Portland Mercury’s Pizza Week. I chose this as my final stop because this restaurant is a Portland institution for its home-style Italian cooking, and has been serving customers for 38 years. Additionally, I was drawn to the delicious, beautifully colored vegetarian pizza they crafted specifically for Pizza Week, “The Best of Italy.”
I have fond memories of eating their thick crust pizza during the home remodeling years when my kitchen was a bathtub, hot plate, and a wok. Though this was my particular craving at that time, it was before the big “pizza craze.” However, DeNicola’s was already well-known the city wide for its thick crusted pizzas with the homemade sauce, delicious spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna… and well, the list goes on. Always putting their customer’s desires at the forefront, their menu has evolved with Portland’s changing palate. They offer 25 vegetarian options, as well as gluten free pizza and pasta.
DeNicola’s is a family-owned business started by immigrants, Giovanni and Rosina DeNicola. They passed on twelve years ago and the legacy is being continued by daughter, Donna, brother Nick, and her sons, Patrick and Johnny. While I waited for my pizza, Donna, sat down with me in their comfortable booths to talk pizza. She has worked here since the restaurant opened, 38 years ago. Donna still loves her job, the hours, and the longtime staff, who are like family. She believes that you have to provide a good working environment if you want your employees to stay. It appears she does just that – for once someone is hired they almost never leave, which is a good thing in her opinion.
For pizza week, the restaurant came up with many ideas, but scrapped them all and decided to go with “what they do best.” While they don’t usually offer pizza by the slice, they decided to give it a try during Pizza Week to meet a whole new set of fans. Their “Best of Italy” starts with a crust that has the perfect amount of crispiness topped with their hearty housemade marinara that looks and tastes like someone’s Italian Grandmother would have made. Topping that in a circular design was the mozzarella, ricotta, and basil pesto, finished off with a carefully drizzled balsamic reduction. The colors of this pizza match the colors in the Italian flag. Each stripe of color offers another pleasant flavor; the creamy goodness of cheese, followed by a burst of marinara that tastes like it’s been simmering all day, the sweet tang of the balsamic reduction that marries well with the thin line of pesto, all balanced by the crunch in the crust. This pizza has been so popular that they will be adding it to their menu.
At first I thought I’d take a couple bites then take the rest home, but the pizza tasted so good and I couldn’t resist staying to finish it because sitting in that booth, lace curtains on the windows, maps of Italy on the tabletops, with music from another era playing in the background, you really felt the history of the DeNicola family. As Donna told me, once “they” (her customers) walk through that door, we’ve got them, and we’ll take good care of them. And that is exactly what you’ll get at this Portland landmark. I hadn’t originally planned where my last stop would be, but I couldn’t have picked a more perfect place to end Portland Pizza Week.
DeNicola’s Italian Dining, 3520 SE Powell, http://www.denicolasitaliandining.com/, open 7 days a week, 4-9 p.m. and til 10 on Friday and Saturday.