High Chairs and Hard Core

Pizza Jerk rolls out a first: the punk-rock family pizza joint.

By Karen Brooks March 1, 2016 Published in the March 2016 issue of Portland Monthly

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Pizza Jerk chef-owner Tommy Habetz scores big with serious pies and a vintage sit-down Space Invaders arcade game.

You may know Tommy Habetz only as “the Bunk guy,” the laid-back, T-shirt-clad dude who co-masterminded Portland’s definitive sandwich shop in 2008. Among his nicknames: “Puff Daddy.” But the rumpled, stoner facade obscures a larger self—a truly gifted chef with an abiding interest in music, film, and literature. A son of Connecticut but New York trained, Habetz can locate the art in lowbrow food seemingly at will, tapping slow-cooked meats and bold marinades for upgrades. He also makes the Italian food you want to eat, maximal and yummy, a knack gleaned from his Big Apple mentor, Mario Batali, the orange Croc-ed Visigoth himself. In Portland, people still recall Habetz’s pasta dishes at the Ripe Supper Club circa 2003 as some of the best they’ve eaten.

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CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: The Jerk’s Dan Dan pizza; Pizza Jerk’s specials-filled menu; one of the shop’s many pieces of random wall art

Pizza Jerk, which opened in November, pulls all these threads together. In a former neighborhood bar on the edge of Cully, Habetz has remixed the family pizza parlor for a new generation—punk rock, Sichuan chile oil, and a vintage Japanese Space Invaders arcade game included. The menu runs irreverent to homey, pizza to spaghetti.

Consider: three Pizza Jerk truths in no particular order.

1. The glass pizza ceiling has been broken.

Playful pies are nothing new. But, until now, none have fundamentally changed the notion of what a pizza might be. That’s the Jerk’s Dan Dan pizza, a frequent menu special. Here we find Habetz reconfiguring the DNA of spicy Chinese noodles for survival in a new environment: a formidable disc of bubble, crisp, and char. First comes a welcome mat of chile paste hot enough to Jheri-curl your hair. Then, the sublime surprise of sweet char siu pork shreds and waves of bitter, crackling mustard greens. Hiding in the shadows: stretchy aged mozzarella. This is no Wolfgang Puck designer spicy chicken pizza. It’s an intense, inexplicably addictive reminder of how rare it is to taste something truly new. Order it.

2. Tradition has its place—sort of.

You can order a first-rate pepperoni pie here, or bliss out on fantastic hot garlic bread wrapped in a paper bag. But Habetz’s East Coast chutzpah lies in his Sunday Gravy Pie, an homage to the meat-laden tomato sauce served like sacrament on the Italian American table. Remember Fat Clemenza showing Michael Corleone how to make Sunday gravy in The Godfather after Sonny is riddled like mortadella? It’s like that … on a pizza. In essence: a cooked-all-day, dark-red swamp of meatball exactitude, pepperoni joy, house sausage, and gut instinct, ladled over 18 inches of blistered dough. Here lies more meat, richness, and exuberance per centimeter than any dish in Portland. The garnish de resistance? Fall-apart riblets, plucked from the pot. Unlike the Dan Dan, it’s familiar and, yet, a wholly different animal. Order it.

3. Pizza Jerk doesn’t take itself seriously—but it does deliver serious flavors.

Essentially, this is a punk-rock family pizza joint, a house of ’80s hard core and high chairs wrapped in wood paneling. Everyone seems up for fun, including the table of cool kids giggling over the secret house special: spicy fried rice with fennel sausage, some extreme crunch edges, and pecorino Romano. Insiders and off-duty chefs are regulars. I recently saw a senior sipping a Bloody Mary tinctured with pizza sauce alongside a still-wrinkled baby who was pondering, like the rest of us, whether to plunge a slice, “Jerk-style,” into ranch dip. The house muse is the ’80s-vintage punk icon Mike Watt, whose experimental attitude and thrifty “jamming econo” approach is enshrined at the bar, his photo planted in a field of Dum Dums. The vibe crystallized recently as kids snorkeled for their favorite flavors while the Misfits blasted from the sound system: “I got something to say / I killed your baby today.” Everyone had a sucker, everyone was smiling. It’s the embodiment of the best of Portland—perhaps a fading Portland—and only one person could pull off this blend of ambition, modesty, and openness: Tommy Habetz. Pizza Jerk is his heart and home. 

I had my doubts about Pizza Jerk, a project announced in 2014, then delayed. Habetz seemed distracted. Bunk, a food-porn fave in national magazines, recently expanded its fan base to Brooklyn with its first East Coast location. Meanwhile, his personal Facebook feed remained a constant scroll of everything but pizza: heart-on-sleeve laments over love and loss, music links, and shout-outs to everyone else’s restaurants. I asked him about this, and he quickly shot back: “I’m not interested in talking about (famed French chef) Paul Bocuse or food trends.” (As bad guy Tuco barked in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: “When you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.” Point well taken.) While we weren’t looking, the 43-year-old perfected one of Portland’s best pizza crusts yet. He bypassed wood-fired bling—a must at most hipster pizza spots—in favor of an electric deck oven, adding Connecticut-style buttery tones, dusky char, and a relatively thin surface. The results: chewy but crisp, with enough structure to stand and fold. Mostly, it’s delicious.

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CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: pepperoni pie and Caesar salad; vintage bar décor and the Mike Watt Dum Dum shrine

You can build your own pies or choose among a dozen house pizzas and specials, $18–26. Standouts so far are the wildest (Dan Dan, Sunday Gravy), the beautifully remastered (a Hawaiian pie reborn with fresh-pickled pineapple and candied pork), or, simply, the simplest (pepperoni, meatball, or the house fennel sausage). Some ideas still need time in the lab: the over-heavy thud of an eggplant parm pizza, a bland white clam pie, a forgettable Caesar, and a tame cacio e pepe pasta, way short of his old Ripe version, which was nearly black in its pepper attack. Consistency has been an issue—you know what happens when the Blazers bench players come in? That’s Pizza Jerk when Habetz, or his able right hand JB Tranholm, takes the night off.

It’s early in the game, but already Pizza Jerk feels major. Partners Brandon Smyth and Ben Hufford are helping shape the next phase, transforming the parking lot into a neighborhood magnet: outdoor tables, playground, maybe an ice cream truck to dispense the kitchen’s upcoming soft serve. Meanwhile, Habetz is still digesting the realization that all Italian sauces are game for pizzadom. Might we see his fabled oxtail ragù or chicken liver sauce slathered on a pie? A girl can dream. 

For now, the Jerk’s best slices play like a three-minute punk anthem: an immediate hit of sweat, joy, and pain, a rocket ship to someplace else. There and gone in one bite.

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