Grab a slice of pepperoni from an 18-inch pie at the new Pizza Thief, then smile at your fortune. Especially if you live in Northwest's pizza desert, a neighborhood barren of the individualist shops that make Portland America's most original pizza destination. (We'll let you argue over whether we're the best, as recently proclaimed.) The tip of the triangle is just wet enough to flop over the top, while the bottom is dry, crispy, and spotted with telltale oven char. On top, tomato sauce, cheese, and Sicilian oregano have become one, something greater than its parts, what my pizza-obsessed friend Stephen calls the “pizza liquor.” Meanwhile, curled pepperoni cups, a whole sea of them, glisten like tumblers of oily red goodness.
You could mistake this for a New York pie, but don't. The crust is unmistakably Portland, tasting more like delicious sourdough bread than pizza crust—rugged and chewy, alive, tinged with local rye and spelt.
“People have been describing us as New York style,” laughs chef and co-owner Darby Aldaco, who opened Pizza Thief with partner Tony Pasquale on NW Vaughn in late May. “New York is big floppy pizza. Us having a slice shop is part of that. But I don't see New York making naturally leavened pizza crust.”
Also hard to imagine Jersey flaunting an asparagus pie dabbed with basil-hazelnut pesto. Pizza Thief 's heart is on the West Coast.
Like a good number of Portland's pizza auteurs, Brian Spangler (Apizza Scholls) to Ken Forkish (Ken's Artisan Pizza), Aldaco began his dough journey as a bread baker, and it shows. The shop also dovetails with the wing of Portland's pizza (and bakery) school committed to locally grown and milled grains. These earthy nuances are a highlight at places like Lovely's Fifty Fifty and Handsome Pizza—and a far cry from the hippie, whole-wheat death-bombs that once defined West Coast style.
Eight options and a daily special hold down the list ($27–30 whole; $5.50 a slice). So far, the pepperoni is the ticket. But there's no arguing with the Hot Tony, its top a patchwork of spicy Italian schiacciata salami, pepperoni cups, meaty wheels of jalapeño peppers, and cheese splotches. The house fresh fennel sausage pie is backed by five kinds of onions, a signal that someone in the kitchen cares. I'd return for another crack at a recent special that mingled sweet pops of fresh corn with the vegetal green heat of padron peppers.
For those who need to know: yes, there's a daily vegan special. And any pie can be had with gluten-free dough, a pride of the house. Aldaco admits he didn't want to jump into the tricky gf world after spending two years developing his sourdough crust. He gave up trying to remake the house dough and leaned into a buckwheat mix from the Caputo flour folks, the gold standard in Neapolitan pie circles, adding his own touch: corn flour. “I think it's pretty amazing,” he says. “I'll happily put ours against any in town.”
Pizza Thief has quickly caught on in the neighborhood, in part for its super friendly, casual-mod pizza shop vibe. Walk in to find a counter heaped with pizzas, three kinds of house focaccia, rustic sandwiches, eight Oregon beers on tap. Two family-friendly communal tables occupy the inside (communal tables are back?) and picnic tables line the sidewalk. Next door is the companion Bandit Bar, a dark and moody spot for cocktails and natural/local/Italian wines.
The insider find here is the selection of baked goods. Look for delicate, rye-floured seasonal handpies oozing thick, bright, tart house jam. Not to mention a righteous chocolate chip cookie weighing in at a quarter of a pound, the whole thing darkly baked to a crisp-chewy finish and rifled with hazelnuts and chocolate.
Baking is Aldaco's love. In 2018, by luck and circumstance, he fell into Los Angeles's prestigious pizza world. After several years as pastry chef duty at LA's popular Proof bakery, Aldaco was tapped as pizzaiolo at Triple Beam, a new Roman pizzeria from legendary restaurateur Nancy Silverton and star chef Matt Molina (Pizzeria Mozza, Osteria Mozza). He says he learned the ins and outs of Roman pizza, in part, from the head baker at Rome's fabled Antico Forno Roscioli, Triple Beam's muse.
After eight months at Triple Beam, Alcado set his heart on Portland, where he’d previously lived. Here, he'd make his own Roman-style pizza dough, but with natural leavening instead of commercial yeast, while adding whole grains to the formula. Recently, he moved here after inking a multiyear lease in the former Acapulco's Gold Bar, across from Meriwether's. Partner Tony Pasquale, looking for a change after 10 years as VP of marketing at Adidas, doubles as Pizza Thief's gregarious front man and business mind.
The kitchen is still finding its way. Some of the toppings are a bit too shy and restrained. A little salt punch might go a long way here, including over focaccia. And like at most shops, oven-fresh whole pies deliver more bang than slices.
But already, Pizza Thief brings welcome new energy to Northwest Portland and is one of those places you root for—excited about good ingredients and dedicated to craft. I'm eager to watch it grow, especially the baking. Pies and cakes may come in the fall, and the kitchen's ice cream pints are just cranking up.
“Portland is an amazing pizza city,” Aldaco says. “You can get every style here, everyone doing their own thing. But Sarah Minnick [at Lovely's Fifty Fifty] is my pizza crush in life. Oregon produce, beautiful sourdough crust, whole grains. We see ourselves as part of that.”
Pizza Thief, 2610 NW Vaughn St, 503-719-7718, pizzathief.com