APPEALING COMBINATION Otto’s crust, sauce, toppings, casual atmosphere.
People seem eager to call Otto's the best pizza in Portland. It's a controversial claim — and one I encourage you, in fact, not to think about. Scrutinizing Otto's pizza for signs of greatness threatens to obscure something more important and less ambiguous: whether the pies themselves are superior or not, Otto is Portland's best pizzeria.
A pizzeria should offer some simple pleasures that have been lost in our era's obsession with gourmet this and that. The bobos can head to Bonobo for wood-fired delicacies and a restaurant atmosphere. The experience at Otto has more of a working-class(ic) appeal. At Otto you stand in line in a cramped shop, and watch young people sweat in front of big ovens. In the summer months most customers grab a $3 slice and join the pleasantly disorganized gathering of eaters out front. Not everyone is lucky enough to grab one of the few stools or the little red tables scattered out front, so they perch on the curb, or fold their slice and eat standing up. It's the most appealingly informal and haphazard display of eating in the city.
The toppings on your slice might have an appealing haphazardness too. That is how pizza should be: kids tossing toppings onto pies, not chefs crafting masterpieces. So a "house favorite" pie with mushroom, bacon, and Vidalia featured big piles of onion in some spots, and concentrations of mushroom in others. The crisp pieces of bacon — gathered in the middle — started the slice with salty crunch, which gave way to the sharpness of black pepper offsetting the sweetness of the cooked onion. The little slices of mushroom were dark and just rubbery enough to evoke traditional pizza-Americana.
The white sauce that comes on most pizzas at Otto is a simple heavy cream. The result is pies with a lot of richness, but in many cases without a very complex flavor at the root of the pizza. The best ones made up for this with plenty of herbs — for example the aromatic basil on the margherita. Its tomato was sliced so thin that the centers melted away, leaving behind only a few red spokes like a sports-car steering wheel. Fresh herbs can be added to any pie. The tomato sauce on the red pies is simple and sweet, and makes for a good base.
Otto's crust is thin and generally strikes the right balance of crisp and chewy. It does not always strike that balance just the same way, however, and some slices are a good bit darker and crunchier than others. Most pies seem to get a sprinkle of salt on the outer crust upon leaving the oven. The effect is something like ending up with a really good pretzel after eating your way to the edge.
With some pies Otto takes its loyalty to standard pizza ingredients too far. The sausage was a bit too fatty and sweet, and the cheese can be a bit bland when not spotted with herbs or scallions, or blended with fontina. Cauliflower might be better if allowed to preserve a bit more of its natural crunch. We did not always think it was a success when Otto went a little gourmet: the mashed potatoes on one pie offered a novel, and surprisingly creamy and light, texture — but the slice was a bit bland and the combination of potato with bacon and chives was almost too familiar. A pizza with squash and ricotta would have been plenty sweet without the cranberries, which seemed more sweet than sour, in the manner of Craisins.