Lovely’s Fifty Fifty Perfects the Portland Pizza

After nearly seven years, the N Mississippi Avenue spot has gone from solid to sensational.

By Karen Brooks September 13, 2016 Published in the October 2016 issue of Portland Monthly

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Peak Northwest flavors ooze across a Lovely’s pie—farm egg, chanterelles, mustard flowers, and buttery Sleeping Beauty cheese from Washington’s Cascasdia Creamery.

Basically, everyone hates Jake.

He foams at the mouth, belches, and lords over the kitchen at Lovely’s Fifty Fifty, which concerns itself with two major food groups, pizza and ice cream. Is Jake hot? Is Jake cold? Has he eaten today? Anyone smelled Jake today? 

But, consider this: Recently, four of us attacked the plush, wood-charred rim of a Lovely’s pie like a luchador going in for a head-scissors takedown. Sour, chewy, and crackly, smelling of wheat and earth, it tasted like great rustic bakery bread—what pizza crust becomes when you no longer care about the New York slice doctrine or Neapolitan purity, only happiness. “What is that flavor?” we asked. Said the waiter: “Oh, that’s Jake.”

Jake is Lovely’s resident sourdough starter: the secret weapon inside, arguably, Portland’s best pizza. Eventually, he (oh my god, even I’m calling it “he”) will be fed a mix of locally milled grains, stretched into crust, then topped with Lovely’s crazy farm finds. Then come off-the-radar cheeses, perhaps a funky Belgian number or something from Washington’s sought-after Cascadia Creamery, up to five varieties per pie, blended for subtle hints of taste and creaminess. Sarah Minnick, Lovely’s co-owner, chef, gardener, and a dirt-clod dork supreme, says she thinks of her ingredients—and little else.

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CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: Chef/co-owner Sarah Minnick with her ice cream; farm pizza toppings; house pies, loaded with Roy’s Calais flint corn

These touches of madness explain what I’ve been tasting here lately. Lovely’s pizza, always good, is now enchanting, idiosyncratic, and complex. After nearly seven years, the blessedly untrendy North Mississippi Avenue restaurant’s evolution from bashful locavore to bold auteur of the Portland pie is complete. Stumptown has plenty of great Italian/East Coast pizza, but Lovely’s has something else: a near-spiritual connection to Oregon’s most adventurous farmers and seed breeders. That relationship traipses through the entire menu. You’ll find yourself eating things you’ve never heard of, or digging into combinations that would be considered tantamount to war crimes in a Jersey ’za shop. A pie of roasted apricots, fresh fenugreek greens, and pink echinacea flowers? It sounds like a B-12 shot, but it tastes fantastic: alive, unexpected, and so full of flavor. That unorthodox sourdough crust locks in the beauty. Thanks, Jake.

Here’s the inside order at Lovely’s: Scan the “Salads and Such” section ($7–$10) to see what’s roasting in the oven or on the stove, often a fine polenta or interesting grain from the deep-thinkers at Ayers Creek Farm. Look for sprouted buckwheat bursting inside a bowl of intense, Parmesan-tinged tomato liqueur. (It’s the only time you’ll ever use “buckwheat” and “sexy” in the same sentence.) The garden lettuce salad—a simple but exquisite balance of crispness, toasty nuts, blue cheese crumbles, and clingy dressing—exemplifies the Lovely’s mode: no makeup, just confidence and natural beauty. “In New York,” whispers my friend Paul, “this place would be a phenomenon, and twice the price.”

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CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: House pie loaded with fenugreek greens and chrysanthemum flowers; Jake, the famed house  sourdough starter; rustic crust in the making

As for pizzas, minimally, you want two or even three; just because. Seven options surface nightly ($13–$18). For my money, it’s all about the four seasonal choices. It’s rare (though not impossible) to find a loser among them, and interestingly, the weirder they sound, the better. Pizza with crushed fermented tomatoes, Padrón peppers, pickled chiles, and goat feta? Yes, you want it! Recently I found not one, but two kinds of cornflowers floating on my pizza alongside juice-squirting
tomatoes, creamy-sour sheep’s milk cheese, and shaved squash. The
crowning touch? Orange agrumato, a pricey olive oil that only a geeky-geek cook would drip over pizza for our pleasure. A new favorite is Lovely’s potato pie, a rugged landscape of sage, roasted Yukons, caramelized onions, farm egg, and grassy, buttery Saint Servais cheese, which tastes like alpine air. Least interesting are the pizza standards: the lumpen house sausage; the overwrought salami-olive. It’s not hard to taste where Lovely’s heart lies.

Ice cream, Lovely’s other half, is scooped at the counter or dished at the table, often by Minnick’s business partners, her mom, sister, or daughter—no doubt, this is a gal’s house. To miss dessert would be a crime, for Lovely’s stands as one of the last reminders of what real ice cream tastes like, with no branding, no bacon; all old-fashioned deluxe creaminess and seasonal flavors so ripe they seem like they just fell from a tree. Boysenberry. Fig maple. Come winter, Minnick is determined to perfect sprouted barley with raisins. They make only six flavors, 40 gallons a week. Grab anything with stone fruits. And know this: I will knock you down for the last scoop of malted milk ball.

Everything’s Jake here, from the ever-evolving Portland pizza to ice cream bowls that arrive on doilies, without even a hint of irony. This place could not be lovelier, but it keeps trying.

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