Fifty Fifty by Lovely makes my short list of essential Portland comfort foods. You’ll be greeted by members of chef-owner Sarah Minnick’s own family: her daughter, Sophie, her sister, Jane. The pizzas strike the perfect combination of appetizing yet intriguing. Who knew what pata de goose leaves tasted like before, but they sure work well on a pizza with fermented tomato, capers and Castelvetrano olives. And then there’s the ice cream, with thin, crisp ribbons of rich dark chocolate rippling through a super-creamy chocolate malt base, ideally served in an airy, crispy waffle cone made in-house by Minnick’s mom. It’s familiar, yes, but also inspiring.
Now, Lovely’s Fifty Fifty (4039 N Mississippi Ave) is finally catching the attention of Portlanders, including our very own food critic Karen Brooks with his historical review of Lovely’s in 2016They have known for a long time that they deserve it. On September 7, Netflix will premiere its new series, Chef’s Table: Pizza—and there’s an entire episode dedicated to Sarah Minnick. Needless to say, it is a must see.
Before the episode, Brooks was a huge supporter of Lovely’s and never stopped delving into Minnick’s fascinating mindset. In 2017, when he championed Portland as one of America’s largest pizza cities, Brooks said he cold-called Minnick, who was running down I-5 with a box full of snapdragons to top a pizza from bacon. “Snaps, man, they’re really hard to explain,” Minnick told him. Brooks’s ode to Minnick as a wizard of obscure local produce and a crispy sourdough crust is on full display at Chef’s table. The episode explores a larger story, from the time Lovely Hula Hands opened, now closed, in 2003.
Minnick used to run the front of house at his restaurants, hiring several chefs, including Troy MacClarty, a Chez Panisse alum with a love of seasonal vegetables, who later went on to work at Ned Ludd and became the chef. chef owner of the Bollywood Theatre. After he left, Minnick went through several chefs, but none of them felt right, so he took matters into his own hands. In chef’s table, 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 more than five years.” She has tears in her eyes as she says, “I had to work an astronomical number of hours to learn the job. It was really difficult.”
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-topped pizza and ice cream at small batches. “These ingredients would be a war crime in a Jersey slice shop,” Brooks proudly proclaims. “These cakes are not subject to any doctrine. At the end of the day, this is just really good pizza and ice cream.”
I spoke 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 approached you and how was the process?
Karen Brooks: One of Netflix’s frontline scouts starts with a phone call and says they’re coming to Portland, they’re going to make a movie and you’d like to be a part of it. I was told this was a chef’s table show about pizza, and Sarah Minnick would be one of the topics, and that they had really liked the two articles I had written about Sarah. I said, “Great, I’d love to do that,” and I guess I passed the first test. Then they said that Danny O’Malley, the director, would like to do an interview with you. This is the second level of exploration. We had a very long phone conversation and joined in with the music. I was the guitar player in this punk/new wave band called The Grip, and Danny is really into music and the DIY spirit. And I guess after that I was inside, because I got the call.
Then I had to worry about my outfit: I was wearing a burnished leather jacket, I wanted to be in my critical rock and roll mode. They did my hair and makeup… you feel like a little queen for a day. It’s exhilarating, but disconcerting. Did I look good? Did I say something interesting? But I feel super honored. I’m passionate about not only pizza, but also ice cream, including my absolute obsession with malted milk ice cream.
It’s been about 12 years since Lovely’s Fifty Fifty opened in 2010. What was the pizza scene like at the time? How has the definition of Portland pizza changed since then?
We used to be a pretty boring pizzeria, and what changed was that Ken’s Artisan Pizza opened [in 2006] and also Apizza Scholls [in 2005]. With those two places, we had game. The entire Portland food scene on every level, with distilleries, restaurants, coffee shops, and food carts all just kind of blew up and flourished. It happened organically, while the rest of the world wasn’t looking at Portland. This cake from Lovely really helped define something here. Ken’s was really influenced by New York and Italy, the mother ship, and Apizza Scholls was certainly influenced by New Haven style, and New York style, and making the new Neapolitan pizzas. With Lovely’s Fifty Fifty we have someone who is really this author, who is really doing his thing, and I think it fit the bill and maybe helped inspire others. Around 2015, Pizza Jerk came along and was doing a Chinatown-style dan dan pie and a Sunday gravy pie. Scottie’s opened in 2015 and is down the rabbit hole with his own ideas, like weaving Hatch peppers. Suddenly you have all these pizza makers and all these different styles, but the people behind them were so dedicated and so serious about doing their thing, and that just blew up here.
What do you hope the outcome will be for Sarah after the show comes out?
Give yourself a few days off! She deserves all this recognition and attention. She couldn’t happen to a humbler person. But she worries me, will there be lines of tourists at the end of the block? Will they be able to keep up? Will they become Voodoo Donut? Stumptown [Coffee] It started as a small place in [SE Division Street]. Salt & Straw, while waiting to open, 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 in Portland. Are people going to say, “Come to Vegas”? Chefs deserve whatever success they want. Personally, I’m a little scared that I’m going to lose the enchantress at Lovely’s, that she’s going to explode. Fame can be a double-edged sword; I hope this gives her and her staff all the rewards they deserve.
The menu at Lovely’s changes all the time, but certain pizzas, ice cream flavors, and toppings tend to make a comeback. What would you say are the must-tries?
Malted milk ball ice cream is my obsession. I also love mint stracciatella, and sometimes she makes it with hyssop anise. Blueberry ice cream, when in season, is always very good. My favorite pie has vegetables in it, it could be goosefoot or spinach, with fermented tomatoes and chilies, and it could have goat feta or Reggiano. She doesn’t do them the same way every time, but that’s the one I always get, and she has all those things dancing. It has heat, acid, bitter and funk. Right now they have Summer Lady peaches with escarole and sweet corn and La Quercia pancetta, I’m definitely going to try that. Whatever kind of potato pizza you make, somehow the potatoes taste like fancy hash browns. But for me, I don’t go there and get a sausage pizza or a margarita. It’s just not where his heart is. I am always looking for the most unusual.