For an affordable taste of American influenced old-world Napoli while strolling one of the hottest streets in North Portland, look no further than Life of Pie. Settled in a convenient space on the southeast corner of Williams Avenue and Beech Street, this rustic establishment offers up wood fired flavor and friendliness at a price that won’t break the bank.
Having just celebrated its one year anniversary, Life of Pie has now officially outlived the tenant it replaced, Italian restaurant Oro di Napoli. With a regularly packed house and innovative business model, this intrepid pizzeria looks to succeed where its predecessors failed, as owner Jason Kallingal explains.
“One day I was walking with my girlfriend and we saw this sign that said the business was closed for summer vacation and I knew that it was done. As we walked by we saw that the broker happened to be in the former restaurant. So we just walked in and I told him what I wanted to do and what my experience was and we signed the papers about four days later.”
Life of Pie is owned and managed by Jason Kallingal, a native of Guam with Indian ancestry. Succeeding in the restaurant business runs in Kallingal’s blood and he is proud to carry on the family tradition.
“My dad came to Guam in the 70’s and started out as a dishwasher at a hotel,” he explains. “He eventually worked his way up to general manager of the hotel and taught hospitality as a professor at the University of Guam.”
Kallingal first came to the City of Roses to attend Portland State University. While there, he traveled to Europe on a quest to enhance the credentials he needed to run the kind of business he had in mind. It was during his time in Italy that he discovered the techniques that would lend true credibility to his culinary skills.
“I finished up my MBA in 2012,” Kallingal says. “In between that time I studied sustainability of Tuscan towns in Italy. That’s the first time I cooked out of a wood fired oven.”
After spending additional time in France studying the geography of food, Kallingal returned to Portland and decided to make his mark here. “I think both of those experiences in Europe helped to shape this concept and the importance of pure, quality, locally sourced ingredients,” he says.
The first preconceived notion that he had to overcome was the idea that delicious wood fired pizza in Portland could only be found at a higher price and in the later hours. Before Life of Pie, Portland’s restaurant scene was not quick to offer a traditional wood fired pizza on a lunch menu, something Kallingal wanted to quickly change.
“The concept here is about creating really good high-quality wood fired pizza in a casual and more affordable environment,” he explains. “It’s really about making wood fired pizza more available.”
Kallingal has done just that in offering up his famed 11-inch Margherita with mozzarella, tomato and basil pizza for only $5 during his lunch happy hour from 11am – 6pm every day. “In a lot of places you may be in a stagnant neighborhood where it’s up to you to find these directions to go in. Right across the street there’s going to be another hundred people, so we are really excited about our lunch and the addition to the neighborhood,” he says.
Being in a prime location on Williams Avenue in North Portland only makes providing that availability easier. “This area is estimated to double in the number of households in five years,” he says. “It’s really exciting to be part of an area where the growth is going to come organically. All we have to do is be here, create a good product and make sure every customer is happy.”
Fortunately for Kallingal, Life of Pie’s neighbors only serve to compliment the local Portland theme. “We have a cool relationship with the beer place next door, so people will often order food here then take it over there to eat and try their hundreds of beers,” he says.
This typical Portland trifecta is rounded out with an artisanal ice cream shop and vegan soap store. “The neighborhood is a healthy mix of great businesses,” he says. “Most of them are independently owned and we all make up a great community. I remember when we first came we got a lot of support from other business owners.”
These local businesses understand that this support isn’t unfounded. Kallingal goes out of his way to make sure Life of Pie offers only the best, locally sourced ingredients available.
“We make our own mozerella, our meats are local and grass-fed, our flour is milled through a local cooperative, and our tomatoes come from a really great family farm in Modesto,” he proudly explains.
As for his recipes, Kallingal does his best to ensure he provides a taste of Naples that will appeal to American sensibilities. “We cook our pizzas a little less than normal Neapolitan pizzas. Traditional Neapolitan is cooked at eight-hundred degrees and they use a very fine flour. It’s really delicate because they like to eat it with a knife and fork. Our crust is geared towards the American Palate, it’s got the crunch, but also the airiness,” he says.
With a simple menu that focuses on what they do best, Life of Pie certainly appeals to American tastes. One needn’t be a culinary adventurer to appreciate the subtle balance between sweet and savory on the chop spicy salami, Mama’s lil peppers, goat cheese and honey pizza! While delicious local honey may not be the first thing that comes to mind for a pizza, it’s magic when dribbled over salami and goat cheese.
By using an imported Stefano Ferrara wood fired oven, Life of Pie wants to make sure taste is rivaled only by authenticity. Viewable from the street, this impressive oven brings Napoli to North Portland.
While his restaurant’s name represents an obvious play on words, it also appeals to Kallingal in a more personal way. “We thought of a lot of names and this is the one that felt right,” he says. “You get this tingle in your spine. Plus the story is about an Indian guy on a journey and maybe I feel the same way. I really feel I am in the right place in the right situation.”
Already Life of Pie has seen a measure of success not shared by the building’s prior tenants, but Kallingal isn’t going to let it go to his head. When asked about expansion plans, his immediate answer demonstrates this is something he has given a lot of thought to.
“I am cautious,” he says matter-of-factly. “I don’t want to expand at the cost of quality. We are now in our second year and I just really want to focus on streamlining our systems and getting everything consistent, then I’d be happy to look at other opportunities. It’s definitely a good, simple concept that can be replicated in other areas.”
With a deliciously authentic product complimented by a simple menu, inviting atmosphere and friendly staff, Life of Pie looks to establish itself as Napoli’s ambassador to North Portland and the locals couldn’t be happier.
William Bessette – PortlandMetroLive.com Contributor
William Bessette is a published author, journalist, and copywriter who has been writing professionally for over nine years. He currently works from his home in Vancouver, Washington and is excited to bring you the best that the Portland restaurant scene has to offer.