Review: Tastebud Pizza

Note: Tastebud Pizza is now closed.

There was a time when pizza lovers had a devil of a time in Portland. But today there are Portland dough masters who treat the humble pizza with as much respect as does an old country pizzaiolo.
Dough that rises for 24+ hours, imported wood burning ovens, sky high temperatures, just the right amount of char; today the finer points of pizza making are all taken into account with delicious effect.

Ken’s Artisan Pizza, Apizza Scholls, Nostrana and others have raised expectations here for what constitutes good pizza. Some offer a refined pizza experience and others are more rustic in character. Each has its charms and rewards.

Until recently in Italy, pizza was pizza. With the exception of Naples, you couldn’t really taste the difference between a pizzeria in Florence and one in Trieste. (What has happened to pizza in Italy is a subject someone should write about as it is a good backdrop for discussion on other changes in food culture there.) But Portlanders can be downright querulous about their pizza favorites. At least we take it seriously.

So it is good news that yet another wood fired pizza oven is fired up and ready to go. Tastebud opened in Spring of 2008 slowly and deliberately, at first once a week, then three, and now from Wednesday through Saturday from 5:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. Situated across from the Aladdin Theater, it provides a small dining room with three long tables where you sit communal style unless you are in a group of six or eight. The decor is trattoria style — stucco colored walls, fresh flowers, a credenza with menus, framed pictures of scenic places in Old Europe. If the weather obliges, there is also patio seating among a few fruit trees potted flowers and a waterfall fountain.

Tastebud’s fame from the PSU Farmer’s Market preceded it and formed the the base of its popularity. At the Farmer’s Market, the Tastebud pizza is almost enough of a reason to go. The combinations are always seasonal, fresh and while on the rich side well-balanced. For example, Tastebud will season its arugula with oil and salt prior to placing it on a slice hot out of the warm-up oven, whereas traditionally the greens are left plain. The added fat does in fact add flavor, even if it might be unnecessary. And flavor the pizza has in abundance, as well as a thin, chewy crust.

At the restaurant, the menu is similar to the model at Ken’s Artisan Pizza: simple, seasonal and satisfying. The ubiquitous Caesar salad, a few oven-fired vegetable appetizers, four to six pizza selections, and baked fruit desserts fill up the one-page menu along with beer bottled and on tap, wine by the glass or bottle, assorted San Pellegrino, Jones, and izzie water and sodas. The pizzas range from $14 to $22, salads about $7, and appetizers from $7 to $10.

Tastebud’s staff will tell you their pizza crust is like focaccia, meaning to say “not as thin as Ken’s”. But it certainly is not as thick as all that, thankfully. The crust is good, puffy and blistered along the edge and otherwise baked to a chewy consistency, the underside dotted with a perfect, light char.

These pies are for big appetites. The toppings are at times generous in comparison with the relatively ascetic approach at other places. The cheese covers the tomato sauce, usually the vegetables are copious and if you’re having meat you’ll have more than the usual sprinkle of sausage or or salami. All this and the fact that the pies are large — about 16 inches to my reckoning — and you may have to calibrate your order to be sure not to overdo it.

The basic tomato and mozzarella cheese pizza is the foundation for a few seasonal variations and this recently they included choices of basil, arugula, anchovies, lamb sausage and spicy salami. You can add as many of these as desired. The cheese tends to be master to the sauce in these pies, and in my opinion Tastebud could go lighter. That would make the pie an exercise in balance between piquant and more delicate flavors and more authentically Italian as well. But subtlety is not an American specialty and for most local tastes the Tastebud approach may be the best cultural fit.

Other selections vary depending on what is at market. The combinations are terrific. Try the cherry tomatoes, basil pesto, goat cheese and arugula, or the chili pesto, roasted hot peppers, goat cheese and cilantro, or the roasted peaches with pancetta, mascarpone and arugula. A fennel sausage, tomato and mozzarella selection has always been on the menu and there’s a good reason why it is a favorite. But sometimes the combinations do miss — one evening last spring the morels, scapes and goat cheese pizza was too dry and tasted surprisingly bland.

Which brings me to a paradox that I cannot figure out regarding Tastebud. The pizza at the market, which is baked in advance and heated up in the mobile brick oven, is just packed with flavor. There are few things that satisfy so instantaneously and completely. So why is that the pizza at the restaurant, baked in an installed wood fired brick oven and combining the same kind of ingredient for crust and toppings, simply doesn’t taste as good? I can only offer a theory, which is that giving the pizza some repose between baking and reheating allows flavors to set.

There are a few areas that can use fine tuning which may just be a matter of trial and error as the restaurant settles in. While the salads are generous and crisply fresh, including the Caesar, the roasted vegetable appetizers are often a tad overdone and swimming in oil. A ceramic bowl filled with roasted cherry tomatoes, yellow squash, onions and goat cheese just didn’t require the extra ladle- full of olive oil and could have come out of the oven a little sooner and have been less mushy. The bowl of peas roasted in their pods, a wonderful menu item, were in so much oil we could not finish them.

Desserts make use of the oven as well, with fruit galettes and pies are regular items, served with ice cream or whipped cream. Happily Tastebud doesn’t seem to believe in going as overboard with the sugar as with the fat. The fruit in the rhubarb pie was perfect, not overly tart or sweet. The crust needed more practice however as it was too tough to cut with a fork and was resistant to a knife as well, a situation repeated later with another fruit concoction. Often fruit cheesecakes and cornmeal shortcakes are on the menu as well. These will run you from $4 for home made ice cream to $6 for a galette and ice cream.

Frankly I don’t think ordering from each category on the menu is possible at Tastebud as one dish
or another by itself goes a long way toward satisfying any hunger. The recommended strategy is to share everything. It will be interesting to see how Tastebud celebrates the Fall and Winter seasons, given they have tapped in so well into the bounty of Spring and Summer.

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. sourpuss says

    Pizza always seems to tastes better en pleine aire. And many pies are great for next day breakfast.
    Tastebud’s market pies seem to be engineered to make perfect slices, not whole pies.
    However, at Tastebud’s dining room, the more refined pies like the calamari with extra anchovies MUST be enjoyed hot out of the oven. There is no comparison. Also anything with pancetta is a must.

  2. el says

    I want to like Tastebud, but after eating there a few times I have my worries. I think there is great potential, and the pizza is quite good, but things feel poorly thought out. Ingredients are good and fresh, but often mis-matched. We have generally been ordering the tomato pizza and choosing our own (one or two) toppings. This may be a matter of taste, however, as I like simplicity. The wine list seemed fine, but lacked diversity or depth. I did raise an eyebrow at the beer – big, sweet and fruity Belgian brews didn’t seem to fit the food, especially in the summer. All and all a place to watch.

    Oh, and “en pleine aire”? Are you painting on your pizza? ;)

  3. mike thelin says

    Nice review. I still haven’t been to the bricks and mortar restaurant, but getting a hot lamb pita every Wednesday at the Farmers Market is one of the highlights of my week. Even though I’ve not yet had a chance to compare the pizza at both locations, I agree with sourpuss that eating a slice–or just about anything–tastes absolutely incredible when dining al fresco.

    I can’t wait to try this restaurant.

  4. johnee says

    We went last week and ordered the pizza with peaches and arugula. Disappointed. Great service, nice outdoor patio, wine was reasonable. But the pizza had little to no flavor. Perhaps to agree with the previous comment — it’s a fine line between inventive and mis-matched. The raves from the server who encouraged us to choose it over the anchovy pizza sold us; wish we had tried the other. We live close-in NE which means it is very unlikely we will take the time and effort to go back.

    • Mostly Running. says

      Did it taste like pizza with peaches and arugula? Pity the fool that would have to go all the way from close-in NE to close in SE to eat. Wouldn’t want to go out of the way for “Great service, nice outdoor patio, wine was reasonable.”

  5. Nikos says

    Peach on a pizza? Have we gone completely mad? Try ordering this in Napoli, they’ll run you out of town with pitchforks (as they should)

    • Adam says

      Thank God someone’s got their head screwed all the way on. Look, you want peaches on your pizza, fine, but please, don’t call it pizza. It’s not.

      • says

        Yes, they should just call it “Toppings, Cheese, and Sauce on Flattened Bread” or something arcane like “Mahgeetah” to rightfully placate solipsistic people with keyboards.

  6. lilhuna says

    funny, i have been half a dozen times, and i have had nothing but great meals there. the pizzas i have had have all been flavorful, though maybe one or two were “really good” rather than “fantastic”. for the most part, i have loved the roasted vegetable of the day -(again, maybe one or two suffered the same fate as the aforementioned pizzas), but i am not afraid of oil. quite the contrary. therefore, i love this place. and everyone is so nice there too! it just feels like there is a lot of love that goes into what they do, so i will go back again and again.

  7. Cuisine Bonne Femme says

    Ok, now sacred cow confession (in a really small voice): I’m not that fond of Tastebud and so haven’t bothered with the restaurant part. It is a hard thing to admit, because everyone else loves them so, but I find their pizza rather meh and their sandwiches overpriced and not very well put together. The lamb especially, is pretty tasteless to me.

    Ok, going to duck the throwing of the tomatoes at me now… Am I alone in this though?

    • sidemeat says

      popular acclaim is not a reason to like a particular place.
      the cheesecake factory seems pretty crowded,
      but i doubt that we’ll bump into each other there.
      Marshall is on to something about the menu being forced
      eating, for some, has become a game of one-upmanship.
      the desire for the new, unusual, never before attempted,
      hasn’t worked so well in popular fashion.
      or politics.
      might not work for pizza either.

    • caliente says

      CBF — you’re not. A few weeks back at the Saturday Market I got a bagel with lamb. The lamb was more like mutton — dry, chewy, not much flavor. The bagel was burned. To my palate, most of the stuff that comes out of their oven is past “just the right amount of char”.

  8. pdx_yogi says

    Yes you are.

    But if I wish to eat something from them with peaches, it would surely be the cobbler. Pizza? You kiddin’ me?

    • Dave J. says

      I vaguely recall an episode of “Hell’s Kitchen” with Gordon Ramsay in which one of the contestants served a steak with peaches, and Ramsay nearly knifed him on the spot.

  9. Marshall Manning says

    I’ve thought about going there, but 1) they don’t have many non-gluten dishes (which is obviously their choice, but that Carolyn can’t eat), and 2) the pizzas listed on their menu often sound a bit forced, like they are trying too hard. Can’t they just do a really good ham and red onion pie?

    Marshall

  10. Food Gems says

    Dude – I gotta agree with you. I ate there last week with high hopes. My Caesar was ok and the pizza was average or less. My glass of wine seemed like a rather small pour.

    Everyone was nice and I’m glad to have them create change in the Brooklyn-Powell neighborhood.

    I expected and was hoping for more. I will choose APizza Scholls over Tastebud any day.

  11. OneTart says

    Now wait just a minute, here. Folks in this town rave about deserts with bacon in them, but can’t be open to a pizza that incorporates peaches? Tastebud is my choice for breakfast every Saturday morning. I’ll admit that I have favorites among the many, many pies that Mark and his crew dish out during any one season, but generally they are damned delicious. Peach, pancetta, and ricotta was my slice this week, and it was spot on. IMO, he’s also making the best bagels in Portland (although that may be like being the winner of a one-legged ass-kicking competition?) I’ve only been to the new place a couple of times, so I can’t weigh in so heavily there.

    • jason says

      I’ll be making a trip just to try the peaches/pancetta/arugula/mascarpone, which sounds damn good to me. If you want to call that a flatbread or a tart instead of pizza, ok, but it sounds darn good to me. And I’ll do it from the distant corners of the Pearl/Northwest border, if I can get properly outfitted for such a massive journey.

  12. lilhuna says

    oooh, the bagels! they are the BEST! i now look like i have a bagel around my middle, i have been eating so many of them.

    and i love the way they experiment with topping. it works for pasta, why not pizza? if i want a traditional margherita, i go to Ken’s. but variety is the spice of life, i say.

  13. johnee says

    My point on the NE/SE was simply that if Tastebud was close, I might try it again. I apparently didn’t express that very well. The comment regarding running you out of Napoli I take to mean that we should only eat foods approved by Italians and never experiment — if it isn’t authentic then it should not be prepared. I’ll keep that in mind and call you for approval before ordering food, wouldn’t want to try anything that hasn’t been a staple for 100 years. My point was they are experimenting and the experiment wasn’t much, so I won’t go across town to try it again, which apparently is a big deal, people think I should because the distance doesn’t appear to far to them. Why does it matter to you how far I want to travel for a place I thought mediocre might be a better question. Sheesh. I agree with Cusine Bonne Femme: Meh. And with lilhuna: I’ll go to Ken’s, thank you very much.

    • cmm says

      The Naples comment is hilarious. We were in Campania for a few weeks this summer and it’s true that the pizza there is universally excellent. However, we could not help noticing that one of the most popular toppings was–you guessed it–french fries. (I never tried it myself.) So no, I don’t think anyone would be run out of Napoli on a rail for ordering peaches on their pizza.

      • Adam says

        If you ate at places in Naples that served French Fries on their pizzas, then you weren’t going to real Italian pizzerias. You hit up all the American tourist hot spots. Way to go.

  14. Nikos says

    “de gustibus non disputandum” Johnee, you can have whatever you want with your pizza, that was not my point. You can put banans on it for all I care. Or M and Ms. Also we need to relax a bit, don’t take everything personally. Let’s not disect every comment down to the last detail (Is it a pdx trait to take all things literally? By the way I never said a rail, pitchforks is what I had in mind cmm, actual pitchforks!)

  15. says

    To accompany their Montreal style bagels, I hear that Tastebud is working on a Farmers Market driven Poutine topping, with organic purple potatoes and Rogue creamery cheese curds.

  16. says

    And.. for those bemoaning Tastebud’s oven missing from the market on Wednesdays, it appears to be back now and they have the hot lamb, rather than the sliced deli style.

  17. mewantfood says

    Hey, rumor has it that Tastebud is gonna open the restaurant is finally opening more nights. Its been a bit since I have gone in, but I also hear there is crab and lobster on the menu. Too good to be true? Pizza and Lobster.

  18. PestoGal says

    I went to Tastebud this week and it was fabulous. The caesar salad was large (but not chain restaurant sized)–it was a good size for my husband and I to split before our pizza arrived. The dressing was tangy and not fishy. There was not too much cheese–just the right amount– and the bagel croutons really made the salad. And the pizza was amazing! We had the pancetta, asparagus and mascarpone pie. The asparagus was thinly sliced and plentiful, and the pancetta was in large chunks, giving the rest of the pizza a subtle bacon-y flavor. The mascarpone made the whole thing really creamy. Our friends ordered the canadian bacon, onion and cheese (cheddar maybe?) pizza, and it was good, but we preferred ours.
    Service was good too, though we had to track down a waiter to be seated since there was no host. But once we were seated, service was friendly and fast. We closed the place down, and he offered us the day’s remaining bagels, which we gladly accepted. The poppyseed was great as the base for a scrambled egg and chard sandwich for breakfast the next morning.
    I would definitely go back to Tastebud!

  19. Steve Wino says

    Update: apparently there is someone new in the kitchen who has paid his dues at a couple of very good restaurants and has expanded the menu with great seasonal appetizers, salads, and entrees other than pizza.

    A few weeks ago we had a great side of asparagus, simple, with chili, garlic and some high quality salt, and a salad of thinly shaved asparagus, a few other ingredients, and bay shrimp (my wife said “canned?” and I said “no way, I’ve never tasted anything like this before”). The other night, it was a salad of frisee, some other greens, potatoes, egg, lightly dressed and a wonderful dish of fresh peas, fava beans, and perfectly cooked pasta called strozzapreti (I’d never had it, an interesting tubular like pasta, cooked perfectly al dente) in a wonderful light broth. I wanted to tell them to hold the pizza and bring me some more of the veggies and pasta. They had lamp chops I wanted to try but I came wanting pizza so I saved the lamb (SuDan Farms) for the next trip.

    I’ve always loved Ken’s for its wood fired oven sides but now I have a choice without the usual wait at Ken’s

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