Q&A: Firehouse's Matthew Busetto on the First 5 Years

The man behind NE Dekum Street's gamechanging Italian restaurant looks back on his culinary influences and shares his plans for the next five years.

By Julia Raymond July 17, 2013

Matthew Busetto with Firehouse's resident supercat Polar Bear.

Location, location, location. The mantra of real estate buffs holds even truer for a restaurateur, as convenient access to diners is an essential element to an eatery's success. In Portland, not every restaurateur finds such ideal conditions—some have to make them.

Firehouse chef/owner Matthew Busetto did just that. He's one of a handful of local restaurateurs whose establishments have paved the path for other businesses and helped revive the neighborhoods that surround them. 

In 2007, when Busetto first discovered the historic Firehouse 29 on NE Dekum, the Woodlawn neighborhood was a commercial void riddled with crime. Though the building was decrepit by modern standards, Busetto was inspired by his Northern Italian roots and his passion for wood-fired cooking, and left his position as chef at New Seasons to spend the next year undergoing extensive remodeling on the ramshackle structure.

Firehouse finally opened its doors in August of 2008, boasting Neapolitan-style pies and regional pastas made with seasonal Pacific Northwest ingredients. To give back to his neighborhood fans, Busetto regularly attended Woodlawn Neighborhood Association meetings and began hosting fundraisers for other area attractions like the Woodlawn Children’s Garden.

Fast forward five years: Woodlawn is now considered one of Portland’s top up-and-coming neighborhoods. Breakside Brewery, Woodlawn Coffee, and numerous other businesses have since joined Firehouse's quaint corner of NE Dekum. And Firehouse’s simple, Italian-inspired comfort cuisine continues to draw crowds from Northeast Portland and beyond.

With the centennial of their historic home and the restaurant’s fifth anniversary around the corner, Firehouse is throwing a huge summer social to celebrate the two momentous occasions on Sunday, August 4. The family-friendly bonanza will offer pony rides, dancing, a dunk tank, live music, cotton candy, a petting zoo, Yelp's giant jenga, sack races, tee shirt printing, and a chili cook-off featuring local chef friends from Grain & Gristle, Old Salt Marketplace, Aviary, Breakside Brewery, DOC, and Fireside Restaurant.

Per Busetto’s civic consciousness, proceeds from the event will go directly to two local organizations: The Pixie Project, a Portland-based animal adoption center and rescue, and Sauvie Island Center, an educational program increasing the food, farm and environmental literacy of the next generation through hands-on educational field trips to their Sauvie Island location in Howell Territorial Park. Visit www.firehousepdx.com for more information.

We sat down with Busetto to find out more about his culinary background,  the challenges he's faced at Firehouse, and his plans for the building's next 100 years.

1. What inspired your culinary awareness as child?

My mother was keen on stocking our pantry with fresh produce. I grew up in the Bay Area at the height of the locavore movement so there was never a shortage of fresh, seasonal ingredients. She worked full-time but spent evenings in the kitchen making meals for the family. She taught me the basics of cooking and really fostered my comfort and familiarity in the kitchen. My father, on the other hand, was from northern Italy and a natural cook. He would prepare quick, simple meals like ham hocks and lima beans that were full of flavor. I strive for the same simplistic approach to food that he used in my kitchen.

How did you get involved with the Portland culinary world?

I moved to Portland with my wife in 2003 so that she could pursue her chiropractic degree at the National College of Natural Medicine. Having worked at Restaurant Lulu in San Francisco, I was really interested in farm-to-table, wood-fired cooking. An acquaintance of mine connected me with Leather Storrs (Noble Rot) who steered me towards clarklewis, where I worked with Jason French (now of Ned Ludd), David Padberg (of Park Kitchen and Raven & Rose) and Morgan Brownlow. After a year, I went to New Seasons, where I met my future business partner. My wife found the Firehouse building on Craigslist in 2007. I left New Seasons shortly after purchasing the space and I have been there ever since.

What has been your biggest challenge with Firehouse?

There have been many. Part of the challenge was creating something in a neighborhood that didn’t have much. Of course it didn’t help that the economy tanked six months after we opened, either. On a personal level, I was struggling to find balance between my professional role as a restaurant owner and a chef and my personal rule as a husband and new father.

Was there ever a time that you doubted your concept?

Looking back on it, I should have sweated it, but I didn’t. I had a long list of items that I had trouble sourcing, but it didn’t phase me. It was a total leap of faith and I am grateful for the good fortune that we’ve had.

What are your goals for the future?

There’s always more to do. We have an incredibly loyal neighborhood following but we are always seeking more relationships with the community and organizations that benefit the Woodlawn area. My sous chef [Conor Martin] and I have also considered writing a hybrid self-help book/cookbook at some point as well. We don’t have any plans for another Firehouse but who knows? Anything could happen.

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