PORTLAND – When you think of tasting a velvety-rich, New York-style cheesecake, the word Moxie probably doesn’t share the same brain space.

Or Guinness. Or maple and bacon.

Sure, Tony Dominicus, owner of Bella Cheesecakes, bakes a traditional Italian-style cheesecake with a strawberry topping that makes his mother and grandmother proud. And his coffee-and-Oreo cheesecake — a creamy coffee confection studded with chunks of Oreo cookies and topped with whipped cream and crumbled cookies — is so tempting it should probably come with a warning label.

But other cheesecakes in his repertoire go beyond the standard flavors. Dominicus has a talent for taking the original idea of a food or favorite drink and transforming it into a cheesecake.

If you harbor fond memories of eating a cold orange creamsicle on a hot summer day, Dominicus has an orange creamsicle cheesecake with vanilla wafer crust and whipped cream topping that will whisk you back to your childhood.

His margarita cheesecake, a popular summer dessert, is made with Grand Marnier, tequila and lime. A pretzel crust provides a touch of salt, as if the tongue has just licked the salted rim of a margarita glass.

If you’ve never heard of Tony Dominicus or Bella Cheesecakes, that’s not too surprising. He has no bakery of his own — he works out of a commercial kitchen in Westbrook — so he only takes orders online or over the phone. His father, Nick Dominicus, is Tony’s delivery boy, ferrying his son’s cheesecakes all over southern Maine.

Yet, in the year or so that he’s been open for business, Dominicus has gained something of a cult following. At Good Eats Boutique on Stevens Avenue, the only storefront where Dominicus’ creations are for sale, customer favorites include his tiramisu cheesecake, which is a mixture of cream cheese and mascarpone infused with coffee liqueur, baked on lady fingers and finished with cocoa powder.

(Dominicus also makes a lingonberry cheesecake for Simply Scandanavian Foods just a few doors down from Good Eats Boutique, but it’s the only Bella cheesecake that the store carries.)

Jill DeWitt, owner of Good Eats Boutique, likes the fact that Dominicus’ cheesecakes come in three sizes and his crusts are “not just your typical graham cracker crusts.”

“It’s something a little bit different,” she said. “He’s got one for every holiday and every season.”

DeWitt is considering ordering the strawberry daiquiri cheesecake, infused with rum and sitting on a pretzel crust, for Mother’s Day and the “Car Bomb,” made with Guinness and Irish creme liqueur, for Father’s Day.

“You can tell the signs of a really good cheesecake when it doesn’t crack down the middle because it hasn’t been baked correctly,” she said. “His always has that really creamy, smooth look, which is what people are looking for.”

How did this 31-year-old vocational coach, who works at The Collaborative School on the Pineland Campus in New Gloucester, end up baking cheesecakes on the side?

It started three or four years ago, when he asked his grandmother Sylvia to teach him how to make her Italian cookies.

“She pulled out her old recipes that you could barely read,” Dominicus recalled on a recent afternoon in his parents’ kitchen in North Deering, where he started Bella’s. “I really think the first time, she left out a few things.”

Edith Dominicus, Tony’s mother, said Sylvia had been trying to teach her how to make the cookies for years, but Edith is more of a meatballs-and-lasagna cook.

“Anthony had an interest in learning so that the tradition would go on,” she said. “(Sylvia) showed Anthony once, and she was amazed how he just picked up on it. Definitely, he has a knack.”

Next came learning how to make his mother’s Italian-style cheesecake, a childhood favorite made with ricotta cheese, sour cream and cream cheese. Edith says she learned the recipe years ago from her cousin and started making it for her own family.

“We just had it at Christmas and Easter,” Edith said. “That’s the only time I would make it, because it’s very rich and has a few calories in it.”

Tony started making his grandmother’s cookies and his mother’s cheesecake for Christmas and Easter gifts.

“The following year, people would be asking me, ‘Am I going to get any cookies or cheesecake?’ ” he said. “So then I started messing around with different flavors of cheesecake.”

Dominicus now makes 15 to 20 cheesecakes per week, but his output jumps to 20 to 30 a day during the holiday season. He’s also started making bite-sized cheesecakes for weddings and other events ($18 a dozen), and wants to start selling his Italian cookies by the pound as well.

Bella Cheesecakes are served in two brew pubs, the Liberal Cup in Hallowell and the Run of the Mill in Saco, but Dominicus would like to place them in more restaurants. His ultimate goal is to open his own bakery. With at least 36 flavors of cheesecake under his belt, he certainly would have no trouble stocking his own place.

Dominicus gets a lot of his ideas for new flavors from friends. The Moxie cheesecake was born when he was hanging out with a couple of friends who really love the Maine soft drink.

For a friend’s bachelor party a couple of weeks ago, Dominicus made a maple-bacon cheesecake that had been rattling around in his head for a while. The maple cheesecake sat on top of a pound cake crust, and was topped with chocolate ganache and crushed bacon.

It was a hit with his friends, so Dominicus will be adding it to his menu “because I think it’s one of those unique ones people will gravitate to.”

“They have to be a little daring,” he said, “but you’ve got the salty and sweet (flavor profile), which is really hot right now and does go well together.”

Dominicus will be debuting a new flavor on April 11 at the annual Chocolate Lovers’ Fling, but refused to give any hints about what it might be. “I can’t let my secrets out yet,” he said.

 

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: [email protected]