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Chef/co-owner Jeremy Whyte of Pizza Capo
hef/co-owner Jeremy Whyte stands beside the new wood-fired oven in Pizza Capo’s brick-and-mortar restaurant in McMinnville. Photo by Rusty Rae

Needing a job at 19, Jeremy Whyte, a McMinnville High graduate, started washing dishes eight years ago at Nick’s Italian Café; his sister worked there at the time. “I figured I could wash dishes for a while to figure out what was next,” he says. “But I fell in love with the food and the atmosphere, the rush of getting tickets and serving out.”

He eventually began preparing food at the James Beard Award-winning restaurant. While eating family-style pasta every day was a major perk, the pizza interested him more.

He moved on to Portland’s Oven and Shaker, again starting low but working his way to sous chef in four years. He says, “Oven and Shaker was the busiest restaurant in Portland at that time — a line out the door all night, every night.”

About the same time, he also took a few trips to Italy to immerse himself in the food and culture, participating in two olive harvests, traveling, and, most notably, earning a spot at Alice Waters’ Rome Sustainable Food Project.

Last year, he returned to his hometown to help launch Pizza Capo. Operating at Allegory Brewing in the summer, Elizabeth Chambers in the winter and Friday nights in the spring at Community Plate, the pizzeria quickly earned enough of a following to necessitate a brick-and-mortar, scheduled to open in May at 318 N.E. Third St. in McMinnville.

“It was always a dream to come back to McMinnville and build an Italian restaurant, a pizzeria, but I never thought it would happen this soon and never thought it would be this successful right off the bat.” —Jeremy Whyte

Q: What was it like to be a part of the Alice Waters Rome Food Project internship?

JW: We studied Italian food, but specifically Roman food and the sustainability of it. Everything was from within 100 miles, almost all organically farmed. There was a month where all we did was beans, because that’s all that was coming in. We learned 300 ways to do every bean. So you learn a lot, but at the end of the month, we were like, ‘Cool, we get to learn a new vegetable.’ Which is what the world should be.”

Q: What other experiences did you have while in Italy?

JW: From Rome, I went to Parma, as you would, to check out prosciutto, check out Parmesan, kind of just looking for the different foods.

Then I got a job in Sicily, basically as a pool boy — I needed to make money. I got to live at a B&B as the help and got to eat in Sicily, which is completely different compared to Rome, or anywhere else in Italy. That opened my mind to a lot more stuff down there. I was there for four months, then I came home.

I’ve been back two times for an olive harvest in Puglia. It’s a small family-run olioteca with nine small orchards. No one goes out and picks the olives anymore, they all have the machines for it. But this guy (Tonio Creanza, Creanza Olive Oil) does it all Biodynamically. Workers either hand-pick the olives, or use this thing that’s like a rake with a hose compressor attached.

Puglia is very different than what you see anywhere else. Basically, you go 20 miles anywhere in Italy, and the food changes immensely. Puglia is known as the home of bread. It’s got this semolina-based bread with this yellow tint, and it’s world famous. Every dish has this bread in it — so if it’s something with eggs, it has bread crumbs on it.

And they don’t waste anything. For a long time, they were very poor, so they just eat everything, nothing goes in the garbage. His (the owner’s) mom cooked for 12 people every night; she was 87 and cooked fresh pasta, fresh everything, every night, four courses. At first, she hated me. And then she got to love me, and I got to hang out and cook with her. I was always in the kitchen like, ‘Can I help,’ and she was just like, ‘No … get out of my kitchen.’ By the end of the first year, she’d let me cut lettuce. Then my second year back, I was putting Parmesan on pasta. So she finally got to trust me.

Seeing that food so rustic and what a grandma would do for her family is completely different than what you’d see in a restaurant. So it was really fun to see.

Q: What did you learn from that kitchen that translates to your own restaurant?

JW: The way that we finish a lot of dishes has breadcrumbs on them now, and that’s very much in honor of Nonna, because that’s what she did with everything. We aren’t going to start with pasta here but, if we do, eventually a lot of that will translate from there.

And, going back to the school, the rustic treatment of vegetables and the different treatments of vegetables that they do there is what I’d like to showcase at Pizza Capo. Vegetable-based menus are not very American at this point. So that will be interesting how that goes. It’s very simple. Very rustic. Very Italian. Hopefully, it goes over well.

Q: What foods did you taste in Italy that many don’t associate with the country?

JW: Especially in Rome and in Sicily, foods that I love are Arancini or Suppli (which we’ve had at the pop-ups a couple times), which are risotto balls. In Rome, they’re based off leftover risotto that you would roll up, put cheese in the middle and deep fry. In Sicily, they’re made specifically to have ragu in the middle. It started out as a big family food, like for festivals. And now it’s just a street food.

I think the Italian street food is one thing that we’re bringing to attention here that most people don’t see outside big cities like New York or L.A.

Q: The pizza truck became popular almost immediately. Did you have any idea it would catch on so quickly?

JW: I always thought it might, but I definitely didn’t think it would catch on like it did. It was always a dream to come back to McMinnville and build an Italian restaurant, a pizzeria, but I never thought it would happen this soon and never thought it would be this successful right off the bat.

It was a crazy summer. We sold out of food more nights than we didn’t. That was a good problem to have. McMinnville has been amazingly supportive of us, and we couldn’t have asked for a better little town to come into.”

Q: What is the secret to your dough that makes it so good?

JW: It’s a table-proof dough. So it’s all fresh yeast, it’s all left out, it never goes into the refrigerator. That’s not a secret, but it’s the only thing that’s going to make our dough different than most others’. Most people do what is called a cold retard — you put your dough in the fridge at some time. We always leave ours out.

Q: What is your favorite pizza you make?

JW: I think if you add the Calabrian honey to any of the pizzas, it’s really good. The quattro formaggio, add Calabrian honey, is really good. The meatball pizza that we’re coming out with is really good — we’ve run it a couple times as a special, and, again, it has the Calabrian honey on it. The spicy salami is excellent. The classic margherita is always going to be there.

We’re trying to stay as classic as possible, but still having some fun in there. So far, we’re balancing pretty well, I think.

Q: Did you do much wine tasting in Italy?

JW: I didn’t go to any vineyards. At the Roma Sustainable Food Project, we had local organic wines with the dinners. So I got to taste a lot that way. Every night they had a different wine.

And then around Rome, we obviously liked to drink. So I drank a lot of wine. Chianti and up near Florence would have been more the wine region. When I was living in Sicily, which is another great wine region, I was pretty poor, so I didn’t really drink.

In Puglia, we had the family wine. As well as olive oil, they make their own wine. It was awesome, but very simple; table wine is what they called it.

Q: Is wine and food pairing popular like it is here in Oregon?

JW: It is on a posh scale, but it’s such a different scene because they’ve had wine around for so long. A lot of times they’ll just have a table red or a white, and you’ll get a liter of half liter of that. It’s not like, ‘Oh, I’ll really want this red from Napa over this red from Oregon for this steak.’ It is when you go really high-end Italian. But as an average dinner, it’s, ‘I’ll have a half liter of the house white.’ And it’s usually really nice wine.

Hopefully, one day, I’ll get to go back and do more wine tasting because there’s so many Italian wines and a lot of different flavors going on.

Q: What’s your favorite wine or beer to imbibe with your pizza?

JW: If it’s beer, I’m going Peroni; it’s cheaper, drinkable. In Rome, you go to the bar and you get a $1.50 liter of Peroni. I also drank a lot of spritz. Aperol Spritz is huge. It’s just Aperol, prosecco and orange. It’s what I’d drink at 4 o’clock, which is when aperitivo happens. That’s where you have a spritz, a beer or a wine, and you have snacks. Particularly in bigger cities, but pretty much everywhere, all the bars have free food during that time. They’ll put out cured meats and cheeses. But some places go all out and will have full-on pasta.

In Rome, we’d get off work and go have a drink and have aperitivo. Just sit there and eat all this food for free. It’s great if you’re a student. If you know the right spots, you can get a full meal.

If there was something I could do every day, it’d be aperitivo: have a spritz, eat some free food and hang out in the sunshine in Rome.

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