When I first went to Firehouse in North Portland, I was only in it for the pizza. I’ve never met a wood fire pizza I didn’t like so I knew I’d end up there for that reason alone. But what I didn’t know was how much soul was baking within the walls of the old Dekum location.
The shared building – chef Matthew Busetto’s wife runs the naturopath clinic upstairs – has been producing some of the best Italian food (and smells!) in Portland since 2008. Sure, I may be biased because Busetto has roots in the same part of California where I grew up – and that his food is a lot like the dishes my own father (a firefighter, no less!) used to make. But anyone, Italian or not, can appreciate his stripped down, nourishing yet humble food. Whether it’s a vegetable-heavy dish studded with fresh produce from Firehouse’s garden, or a slice of blistered pizza with rich cheese and mushrooms, the ingredients are always at the forefront. And, if you’re lucky, while service is ending, their humongous and ever-affectionate cat, Polar Bear, might even trot by your table.
Q: What drew you initially to the Firehouse space?
A: One day Elizabeth, my wife, was browsing through Craigslist for a place, and she called and asked if I wanted to see it. I didn’t really want to at first, but when we walked in—this sounds cliché—but I knew right away. It was the perfect space for her naturopathic clinic and my dream wood fire restaurant downstairs.
It had huge ceilings, and wide open space, but wasn’t too big. Instantly, I imagined a small staff, an easy-to-run little restaurant, though I don’t know if that actually exists. (laugh)
At that moment in my life, I wasn’t burnt out on restaurant life necessarily, but the hours are crazy and my current job at New Seasons was just a normal job, a paycheck and great benefits. I was doing alright. I always knew that I wanted to stay in the food industry, but just walking into that space renewed and piqued any interest that I may have lost over the years.
Q: What do you think your restaurant does differently than other Italian spots in Portland? Did you bring any of Northern California to your restaurant?
A: Well, our philosophy has always been to keep it simple. We have a very small staff. We don’t like to mask ingredients. Sometimes, we’ll be developing dishes and joke, “but adding that ingredient would make it six ingredients and that’s just far too many.” I think we also vary from other Italian places in Portland because we don’t have many pastas on the menu, usually just one or two.
I guess we have a little California sensibility. Recently I was in Northern California and ate at Chez Panisse. Nothing there is mind-blowing in terms of technique, but I like that they’re not trying so hard. You’re just going to get the ingredient, and I think that makes sense. That’s certainly what we do. We want simply the best ingredients, to get the purest flavor and try not to touch too much.
Q: Is there a dish on the Firehouse menu that you feel best represents the restaurant as a whole? I’m a big fan of those meatballs and braised rosemary kale.
A: First, I’d definitely say our pizza. It’s truly Neapolitan style, fashioned after Pizzeria Da Michele in Naples, Italy. It’s very traditional, with few ingredients, and classic Southern Italian fare.
The meatballs also epitomize what we do. We bake bread every morning, save it and freeze it, and then we’ll use it later in our meatballs. If we have a pig that day, we’ll boil the skin down until it’s Jello-like, cool it down, then that goes into the grind also. I feel like meatballs fall under my fried chicken rule. If it’s on your menu, it better be really fucking good. People have memories of things like that go way way back. If it’s not the best, you’ll think, eh, my mom can make it better. I was forever resisting adding meatballs to our menu; I thought it might be too rustic. But the flavor is there – so much so that I finally gave in. Those meatballs are Firehouse.
Q: There seems to be a strong element of family at your restaurant. I know your wife was pregnant very early on in the opening process. Did you imagine your restaurant this way before you opened it?
A: Yes, Elizabeth was pregnant during construction of the space. She was actually helping on the floor a few weeks before giving birth. We sort of grew a family along with our restaurant. I always did want a sense of family among our employees as well. How do you build a family in a restaurant? It’s near impossible, but it was something that I wanted. I knew I’d be here for most of my waking hours. I knew at times I’d be grumpy. I needed people easy to get along with, people I could hang out with, at least talk to, going into it. We’ve had very little staff turnover in our four and a half years. When we opened, the kitchen staff was just the heart of the kitchen – just three really good friends. This is what the kitchen can be like. Do we really want to be around assholes? I don’t think that’s necessary. This is my money that I put into this; the work that I’ve done here is mine. It was high on the list, being around people I want to be around. And now it is a Firehouse family. I thought, how can we make this as enjoyable as possible? We had dumb luck. I love cooking, and I’m lucky that I can spend less less time on managing people problems.
Q: Where do you like to eat and drink in Portland when you’re not at the restaurant?
A: If I can get out there, I love Taqueria Santa Cruz in St. John. A lot of times, because of our schedules, it will be just Calvin (my son) and I. We both like Biwa. He also loves Ox, though that’s more of our once-a-month place because of prices, and it’s definitely at the top of his list. I’m also a fan of Lardo and Podnah’s Pit.
Q: Is there a cookbook in the future?
A: I would love to do a cookbook if I could find the time. I could step back from the restaurant at this moment, but I don’t think I want to. If I did do a cookbook, I wouldn’t want it necessarily geared towards children, but perhaps somehow geared at getting kids to eat well. Kids aren’t always eating right, they’re snacking on goldfish crackers and things like that. I’d love to help frustrated parents in that realm. And of course, a Firehouse cookbook would be great, too. But if I did that, I’d have to be in it all or nothing. Firehouse is my home away from home, so for now, I want to ride this out as long as I can.
*Photo credit: Firehouse