Restaurant Review

Cafe Olli's Goodfellas-Level Pizza, Destination Brunching, and a Year of Struggle

The do-it-all collective arrived last year with hope for a new future. We take stock.

By Karen Brooks September 13, 2022

Corn custard bomboloni, cardamom roll, and a Portuguese egg custard tart

Image: Karen Brooks 

Most of what I need in life is found at Cafe Olli, where cooks collage seasonality, great pluck, and purpose into a mission statement for life. Nearly hidden on NE MLK, the vibe here is super chill, especially outdoors, which draws an ad hoc community of committed eaters and dogs. Handmade everything is the house motto—the breads, the pastries, even the tomato paste. Day or night, a massive, wood-glowing brick oven is in play, firming up over-easy eggs or adding some blissful char to a fruit-crowned Dutch baby pancake, cooked and served in a cast iron skillet. 

Wood-fired Dutch baby pancake with roasted fruit and maple syrup

Image: Karen Brooks

My regular rotation includes: 

1) What I call the perfect breakfast cheeseburger (known on the menu as the “sausage sandwich”), with its thin, juicy pork-shoulder patty, molten cheddar, good mayo dabs, hot sauce zing, and toasty house milk bun. 

2) A fat slice of devil's food cake, double-layered and gloriously frosted. 

3) The Pomodoro, a Goodfellas-level pizza, its thin, chewy, sourdough crust carpeted with deep, dark tomato essence and garlic shaved to a razor's edge, then wood-fired to the stars. For a few extra bones , each slice gets a hand-formed haystack of the kitchen's cold stracciatella cheese, made of hand-pulled mozzarella curds and cream, which you schmear over the hot tomato sauce like heavenly butter. Hands down, this is the single best new pizza of 2022—and a deal at $21. 

Pomodoro pizza with the kitchen’s stracciatella cheese

Image: Karen Brooks

It all adds up to one of Portland's best new restaurants: a brunch and a pizza destination, backed by pastries to crave, sparkling seasonal salads, and simple sandwiches on great baguettes. But, behind the scenes, Cafe Olli is also a now too-familiar tale of struggle and challenge. 

When it opened last year, we heralded Cafe Olli as a vision of the future—a worker-owned collective of five chef-baker friends, recommitting to a broken industry and working democratically as a team of equals. It was inspiring. But in a few weeks, only two members of the original group will remain. Chef Taylor Manning and his wife Siobhan Speirits, Olli's pastry chef, are assuming ownership of the cafe. 

What shook the group? Not one thing, but surely rising food costs, labor demands, and the reality that five equal voices, working on multiple projects, can't always find unity. Adds Manning: “The workload is more than we anticipated at first.” Summer nights were shockingly slow at times—especially for a place this good, with a landmark pizza. And last spring, the decision to pay staff during an extended Covid closure opened a financial wound.   

Departing baker Daniel Green, an enormous talent, sums it up in a word: burnout. 

Green's sourdough breads, the backbone of Olli's delicious toasts and sandwiches, have been the stuff of lore for months now, with their rustic wood-fired crusts and gorgeous sour interiors. My friend Stephen, a hardcore foodie supreme, routinely takes down a whole baguette by himself, in a reverie, with good butter. The football-sized, sesame-crusted country loaf, one of four breads available daily, is just as potent. 

Green, keeper of the house pizza dough, also created Olli's lovely croissants and morning buns, though sadly, few bought them. You missed out, Portland. Beyond this, he worked the kitchen line and helped with Olli's catering arm. No wonder he looked shell-shocked a few weeks ago. 

“It's super sad,” says Green, whose last day is October 1. “It's not an easy thing to do. Restaurants are really hard right now. The pandemic, all the uncertainties. The toll is still here. Opening an all-day cafe was very intense. I'm used to working really hard. But you can hit a point where you're just stretched too thin.” 

The cafe stripped back all the menus this summer, downsizing weekday breakfasts and trimming dinner entrees. But already, Manning and Speirits are eyeing the fall, in all their nerdy passion. The vaunted breakfast burger—suddenly relegated to weekend only, sending regulars into mourning—is back in action, daily. 

The pastry team (labor issues be damned, Olli still has multiple bakers) now includes former Coquine pastry chef Liz Clements. Ex-York bread baker Laughlin Cameron, who Green calls “a good friend and extremely talented,” authored  the wonderful pasteis de nata (Portuguese egg custard tarts), blackened on top in a 480 degree oven. Last Sunday, Speirits busted out a batch of corn custard bombolone donuts rolled in corn sugar. Even Italy doesn't get that. 

And soon, says Manning, pasta—his personal passion—will return to the night menu, from which I recently plucked a beautiful expression of Portland: a salad bursting with iconic Baird Family Orchard peaches and nectarines, hard-to-find ground cherries, and crisp fennel alongside a pizza full of  blistered sweet corn, pureed poblano peppers, and pickled red onions, all pop and snap.      

Will any of these things be on the menu the next time you arrive? Who can say. But know this: Plan B at Cafe Olli—just pick something else—is also a good plan. 

Cafe Olli, 3925 NE MLK Jr Blvd, cafeolli.com, @cafeolli

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