Pie High

Gracie’s New Haven–Inspired Pizzeria in St. Johns Is Worth the Drive

Two key things make Gracie’s worth a trip across town: the crunch and the sauce.

By Benjamin Tepler November 26, 2019 Published in the December 2019 issue of Portland Monthly

Image: Michael Novak

Craig Melillo’s pizza is fascinating. Plenty of places in town follow purist Neapolitan dogma, delve into hedonist Midwest deep-dish, or simply wing it with the catchall “Portland style.” But the pizza at Melillo’s Gracie’s Apizza in St. Johns is something else: a carefully studied hybrid of New Haven, Connecticut’s legendary pie done in a Portland-standard wood-fired oven with hyperlocal ingredients. For East Coast pizza nerds, one chomp into a char-blackened, garlic-stewed tomato pie at Gracie’s is a homecoming. For everyone else, it’s just plain good.

Thirty-two-year-old Melillo was raised on New Haven’s iconic Sally’s Apizza, setting up lawn chairs to wait in long, summer lines for a taste of what many consider to be the best pizza in the country. (“Pepe’s doesn’t even make the mark for me,” he says, throwing shade at that city’s other nearly century-old institution.) In spring 2018, he opened up shop inside a red, snub-nosed food truck, stretching fresh mozzarella and churning ice cream in brewery parking lots all over Portland. Long lines and devoted regulars clamoring for his 10-inch pies inspired a brick-and-mortar, a white-walled shoebox set back from Lombard in North Portland, Melillo’s home turf since he moved to town in 2017.

Two key things make Gracie’s (named after his nonna) worth a trip across town: the crunch and the sauce. The pies of Melillo’s childhood are characteristically crackle-crisp—blackened in ancient, high-heat coal ovens. He uses a wood-fired oven but pushes the cooking time (on the order of seconds) to get that same tactile crust. Next, Melillo seasons his sauce simply with garlic, olive oil, and salt—another New Haven signature that diverges from straight-from-the-can Neapolitan sauce. That’s it, really.

If you order the $9 “tomato pie,” known simply as “plain” in New Haven parlance, topped with slices of fried garlic, fresh oregano, and a scant sprinkling of pecorino, you’ll be as close to Sally’s as is possible in Portland. But Melillo’s cheese-heavy pies are great, too. Hyperlocal and deeply invested, the former cheesemonger stretches his own cultured, buttermilk-heavy mozzarella and drains his own ricotta using dairy from a farm in Ferndale, Washington. “The Ricotta” oozes with creamy goodness and heat from a heavy buckshot of black pepper.

Right now, Gracie’s is still finding its place in Portland’s pantheon of pizza. New lures emerge weekly at the shop, from risotto nights to corn bread experiments. Devour standout sundaes loaded with intensely chocolatey sorbet, ginger-coconut scoops, and fruit preserves, and stuck with Melillo’s childhood fixation: pizzelle waffle cookies. If this neo New Haven pizza is just the beginning, we can’t wait to see what comes next.

Gracie’s Apizza

8737 N Lombard St, 971-512-0007

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