When Applebee’s announced last month it would be rebranding its 2,000-unit bastion of corporate mediocrity in order to take back respective neighborhoods with a “fire-breathing workhorse” of wood-burning grilling, most people who care about real food surely didn’t notice. Yet it was an indication of our newfound consciousness in modern restaurant cooking. In terms of said real food, think about Palomino’s rechristened, awesomely underrated griddled burgers. Or Anodyne, whose owners turned a backyard passion into an Italian pizza oven and a new business model. Consider Carini’s, and its new Neapolitan 900-degree crisper; or Zarletti, and its wood-burning expansion into a former Laacke & Joys in Mequon. Now, even when simply “eating good in the neighborhood,” foodie types can geek out about cooking temps and wood types. Simply: we seem to care more than ever how our food is fired.
There isn’t a wood burning oven at Wy’east Pizza (5601 W. Vliet St., 414-943-3278). But such is the degree of preparation, passion, and, more importantly, the immense heat—800 degrees—that there might as well be. Owners Ann Brock and James Durawa pulled the reverse flow migration, coming home from Portland, where they plied their pizza trade in artisanal trailer food form, earning enough accolades to invest in a foreclosed property on Vliet; and a Forno Bravo, built-in-California gas-fired dome. Here they seem to take everything as seriously as their previous burg gets parodied for. Terms like “fermentation” and “hand-stretching” and “caramelizing” litter the website’s “Our Story.” There is a limit on the number of meat toppings for customized pies out of structural concern. The Italian “cornicione” gets casually dropped like, duh, everyone knows that’s the outer crust. But nothing can stoke so much curiosity, so much idolatry, as the oven. It’s a beautiful, bulbous vault, with a pristine tiled outer and subsequent high flame—harkening something elemental, primitive—that seems to have been long calling us for a gathering around a very hot fire.
The space: On a corner of Washington Heights sits Wy’east, in the home of the old Papa Joe’s, sporting a name that signifies the native name for Mt. Hood, but which Milwaukeeans may come to understand as “Why East?” As in, “What’s wrong with the West Side?” Withstand the microscopic parking lot and a popularity that calls for near-hour standing-room waits on a Thursday at 6 p.m., and you can get your first impression right inside the door. Mainly in the form of smell, which is delightfully burn-y and smoky, promising fire and the Maillard reaction and caloric greatness that strikes a chord of impending caveman-ish satisfaction.
Eventually you’ll feel the requisite warmth of repurposed wood, subconsciously swill the appetite-inducing yellow paint, sip some friendly laidbackness, spot that we’re-doing-serious-work-here oven, and get an idea that this is maybe the kind of place on every street corner in Portland. Whether that sounds comforting or worth an eye-roll, some frigid hops and ample time for inhalation make it feel like a cookout you weren’t sure about, now turning mouth-watering and more than alright.
The food: Chill or not, all that should really matter is what’s on the plate. What hits first, unfortunately, is the price. Two pizzas and two beers from a counter order topping 50 bucks is enough to bring about a teeth-suck or grimace, or maybe a what-city-are-we-in? empty gut reaction. Wy’east has six pizzas, 14 inches each, topping $20. For comparison: at the original Paulie Gee’s in Brooklyn, a similar sized pizza runs between $13 and $16. At Grimaldi’s or Motorino in Manhattan everything is $18 or under. And these are some of the best pizzas from the best ovens in maybe the most expensive city in the world.
The end note is also a bit unsettling: the char on both our pizzas was anything but light. But in between—well, it’s really all about the in-between. All that fermentation, or some bit of yeast magic, results in an undercarriage that has a tasty chewiness for days. An almost jaw-tiring chewiness, with sourdough-ish notes. The most enjoyable bites—and there were many—were airy, softly cushioned, with a char-y, black top crunch. There was what pizza nerds, pushing their glasses back up the bridges of their nose with furrowed brow, refer to as “leoparding”—the black spots of distinction from a very hot oven. There was a delightful airiness toward the edges that showed proper inside-out dough kneading technique, and below there was a dark hue and crisped, dusty, smoky texture.
A sturdy vehicle, no doubt, and a pleasant marital bed for the flavor romp to come on top. On the Hot Marmot ($22), the cheese and red gravy mix and mash and run hot together into one greater than the parts. Pecorino Romano fleshes out the standard mozzarella, and vaguely listed “herbs” make the sauce pop. Above this are moon-like spheres of pepperoni, pleasantly not too-salty; a tax-and-spend liberal’s generous hand of fresh garlic; and singular brined red peppers like nothing else, at once sweet and piquant.
Then there’s the Cape Blanco ($21), a choice from the white pie category that blends olive oil, mozzarella, Pecorino, and Ricotta. The oil weighed down what was a very solid feel of the Marmot, and in a soupy way this was the one that reminded us of our favorite Neapolitan pies. Crumbly, spicy sausage and more, much more garlic, balanced the Ricotta’s rich creaminess. Here was a texture and flavor meld that left us wondering: Had it been pulled 20 seconds earlier, would there be a re-ranking of our top-three favorite pies in town?
The verdict: With Wy’east’s reliance on garlic and slamming toppings, it all ended up feeling a bit like Transfer with a much hotter oven. But comparisons aside, here is yet another hot batch of food fetishism, passionately applied to the most worthy of caloric causes. In this case it yields a friendly, yes, neighborhood joint. One that is easy to root for, and impossible not to want to try again.