Lovely’s Fifty Fifty—and Our Own Karen Brooks—Will Star in Netflix’s Chef’s Table: Pizza
Lovely’s Fifty Fifty makes my short list of essential Portland comfort foods. You’ll be welcomed by members of chef-owner Sarah Minnick’s own family—her daughter, Sophie, her sister, Jane. The pizzas strike just the right blend of cravable yet intriguing. Who knew what goosefoot greens tasted like before, but they sure do work well on a pizza with fermented tomato, capers, and Castelvetrano olives. And then there’s the ice cream, with thin, crackly ribbons of rich dark chocolate rippling through a super-creamy chocolate malt base, ideally served in a crisp, airy waffle cone made in-house by Minnick’s mother. It’s familiar, yes, but also inspiring.
Now, Lovely’s Fifty Fifty (4039 N Mississippi Ave) is finally getting the attention that we Portlanders, including our own food critic Karen Brooks with her landmark review of Lovely’s in 2016, have long known it deserves. On September 7, Netflix will release its new series, Chef’s Table: Pizza—and there’s a whole episode dedicated to Sarah Minnick. Needless to say, it’s a must-watch.
Before the episode, Brooks was a major champion for Lovely's, and she never stopped digging into Minnick's fascinating mindset. Back in 2017, when she made a case for Portland as one of America’s greatest pizza cities, Brooks recounted cold-calling Minnick who happened to be barreling down I-5 with a case full of snapdragons to shower on a bacon pizza. “Snaps, man, they’re really hard to explain,” Minnick told her. Brooks's ode to Minnick as a wizard of obscure local produce and a crisp sourdough crust is on full display in Chef’s Table. The episode explores a bigger story, from the time she opened the now-closed Lovely Hula Hands back in 2003.
Minnick used to handle the front of house at her restaurants, hiring several chefs including Troy MacClarty, a Chez Panisse alum with a love for seasonal vegetables, who later went on to work at Ned Ludd and become the chef-owner of Bollywood Theater. After he left, Minnick cycled through a number of chefs, but none felt right, so she took matters into her own hands. In Chef’s Table, she shows her tattered copy of the Tartine cookbook. “I read this probably 200 times,” she says. “I mean, I made bread every day for probably over five years.” Tears well in her eyes as she says, “I had to work an astronomical amount of hours to learn the job. It was really hard.”
Throughout the episode, Brooks narrates, painting the landscape of what makes Portland’s food culture stand out, the definition of a Portland pizza, and the glory that is Minnick’s echinacea flower–topped pizza and small-batch ice cream. “These ingredients would be a war crime in a Jersey slice shop,” Brooks proudly proclaims. “These pies are not beholden to any doctrines. At the end of the day, this is just damn good pizza and ice cream.”
I talked with my colleague about her love for Lovely’s and what it was like to be on one of the most influential food shows today.
Katherine Chew Hamilton: How did you get involved with the show? Who reached out to you, and what was the process like?
Karen Brooks: One of the Netflix frontline scouts starts with a phone call, saying that they're going to be coming to Portland, they're going to be shooting a film, and would you like to be part of it. They told me this was a Chef's Table show on pizza, and Sarah Minnick would be one of the subjects, and that they had really liked the two articles that I had written about Sarah. I said, “Great, I would love to do that,” and I guess I passed the first test. Then they said Danny O'Malley, the director, would like to do an interview with you. This is the second level of scouting. We had a very sprawling phone conversation, and we kind of bonded over music. I was the guitarist in this punk, new wave band called The Grip, and Danny is very much into music and the DIY ethos. And I guess after that I was in, because I got the call.
Then I had to fret about my outfit—I wore a burnished leather jacket, I wanted to be in my rock-and-roll reviewer mode. They did my hair and makeup … you feel like a little queen for a day. It’s exhilarating, but it’s unnerving—did I look OK? Did I say anything that’s interesting? But I feel super honored. I’m so passionate about not just the pizza, but the ice cream—including my utter obsession with the malted milk ice cream.
It’s been about 12 years since Lovely’s Fifty Fifty opened in 2010. What was the pizza landscape like at the time? How has the definition of a Portland pizza changed since then?
We used to be a pretty boring pizza town, and what changed was Ken’s Artisan Pizza opened [in 2006] and also Apizza Scholls [in 2005]. With those two places, we had game. The whole Portland food scene at all levels, with distilleries and restaurants and coffee shops and food carts—everything just sort of erupted and blossomed. It happened kind of organically, while the rest of the world wasn't looking at Portland. This Lovely’s pie really helped define something here. Ken’s was really influenced by New York and Italy, the mothership, and Apizza Scholls was certainly influenced by New Haven style, and by New York style, and doing the new Neapolitan pizzas. With Lovely’s Fifty Fifty we have someone who’s really this auteur, who’s really doing their own thing, and I think it just sort of dovetailed and maybe helped inspire others. Around 2015, Pizza Jerk came around and was doing a Chinatown-riffing dan dan pie and Sunday gravy pie. Scottie’s opened in 2015, and he’s down the rabbit hole with his own ideas, like weaving in Hatch chiles. Suddenly, you have all these pizza makers, and all these different styles, but the people behind them were so dedicated and so serious in doing their own thing, and that just exploded here.
What do you hope the outcome will be for Sarah after the show comes out?
Get some days off! She deserves all of this recognition and attention. It couldn’t happen to a more humble person. But I worry, are there going to be tourist lines down the block? Will they be able to keep up? Will they become Voodoo Doughnut? Stumptown [Coffee] started as a little place on [SE Division Street]. Salt & Straw, while they were waiting to open, they had a little cart. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with what those places have become, but they’ve certainly changed from being these little places that belong to Portland. Are people going to be saying, “Come to Las Vegas”? Chefs deserve whatever successes they want. Personally, I have a little fear of losing the lovely in Lovely’s, that it’s just gonna blow up. Fame can be a double-edged sword—I hope this gives her and her staff all the rewards she deserves.
The menu at Lovely’s changes all the time, but certain pizzas, ice cream flavors, and ingredients tend to come back. What would you say are the must-tries?
The malted milk ball ice cream is my obsession. I also love the mint stracciatella, and sometimes she does it with anise hyssop. The huckleberry ice cream, when it’s in season, is always really good. My go-to pie has greens—it could be goosefoot or rainbow chard—with fermented tomatoes and chiles, and it might have goat feta or Reggiano. She doesn’t make these the same way every time, but that’s the one I always get, and it’s got all of those things dancing. It’s got heat, and acid, and sour, and funk. Right now she’s got Summer Lady peaches with escarole and sweet corn and La Quercia pancetta—I’m definitely going to try that. Whatever kind of potato pizza she does, somehow the potatoes taste like luxurious hash browns. But for me, I don't go there and get you know, a sausage pizza or a margarita. It’s just not where her heart is. I’m always looking for the more unusual.