June 10th, 2019

Pizza Capo: This is vera Italiana

Jeremy Whyte extended his peel, that long-handled spatula-like tool, into the red-hot pizza oven and under our pizza. He tilted the peel about 45 degrees to look at the pie’s underside and check its progress, then slipped the dough back for more time in the heat.

The process was repeated three times until Jeremy decided the time was right. Then, with one more quick, forward slide of the peel, a lift and a knowing smile from the Pizza Capo chef, our meal was out of the fire and headed to our table.

Once on our plates, Carla took her first bite and rolled her eyes with approval. “This really reminds me of Italy,” she said. I was thinking the same thing.

We lingered over each slice, reminiscing about our times touring the Italian countryside and visiting family. Those memories were years and thousands of miles behind us but for that evening they were alive once again.

Pizzaiolo Jeremy Whyte pulls a margherita pizza from the wood-fired oven at Pizza Capo. Popular tradition says the pie was first created in 1889 to honor Queen Margherita of Italy. Photo by Dan Shryock

Pizza Capo, which opened in May on Third Street in downtown McMinnville, is the latest in a flurry of new Italian restaurants in Yamhill County. I’m always ready to discover quality Italian food so I headed to Newberg to meet Dario Pisoni, the owner and chef of the new Rosmarino Osteria Italiano. I also stopped in Dayton where longtime chef Mario Baldieri and his wife Kathy opened Mamma Italia Ristorante on Ferry Street in January. Marco’s tortellini in brodo soup – tortellini in broth – reminded me of my grandmother’s cappelletti, tortellini shaped like “little hats” in her own special broth.

I swapped stories of Italy with Rebecca Ponzi while sipping an espresso at her Fratelli Ponzi wine bar in Dundee and learning about the family’s olive oil production in Italy’s Le Marche region. Then I caught up with Carmen Peirano, owner of iconic Nick’s Italian Café and Peirano & Daughters deli in downtown McMinnville. My appreciation for the Italian culinary influence in Oregon wine country grew with each conversation.

Back at Pizza Capo, we savor the mozzarella, basil and tomato sauce – the white, green and red of the Italian flag – that make up our margherita pizza. Like all pizzas here, it’s made in the classic Neapolitan style. There are strict Vera Pizza Napolitana (“true Neapolitan pizza” or VPN) standards that must be followed when making these pies and Capo partner and pizzaiolo Kyle Munroe is VPN certified. Whyte, a fellow pizza maker/partner, learned his Italian chops while studying cooking in Italy, most notably on scholarship at Alice Water’s Rome Sustainable Food Project. Capo’s third partner, general manager Scott Cunningham, also owns and operates the popular Community Plate restaurant across the street.

Together, they are trying to make Pizza Capo as classic Italian as possible while working with fresh, locally sourced ingredients.

“We love Italian food so we’ll keep it there as much as we can,” Jeremy says. “Italian food is comfort food. Everybody loves pizza. And, it goes well with the local wine culture here.”

They’ve already discovered that McMinnville diners are risk takers. They’re not willing to settle for franchised pepperoni-from-a-box pizza.

“We’ve learned a lot,” Jeremy says. “We’ve learned people are more adventurous. We were pleasantly surprised at the number of people who wanted prosciutto and anchovies and fresh burrata (cheese) and things like that. It’s been fun.”

“Italy in the Valley” wine event

The Italian influence extends to the local wine industry as well. Cana’s Feast Winery in Carlton stages its annual “Italy in the Valley” celebration each August to bring more exposure to Italian varietals produced in the area. As many as 14 wineries will be offering tastings from 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 18, on the Cana’s Feast lawn. There’s food, gelato, and a light lunch for the $40 price of admission. Get really Italian and play bocce while you’re there. For more information and tickets, visit the winery website.

Dan Shryock writes each month about McMinnville and Yamhill County. He hopes to someday be fluent in Italian so he can visit with relatives and speak without translation.