A popular baker in Portland who lost his job four months ago will rise again next spring when he opens his dream restaurant, serving Sicilian street food including his thick slab pizza, which has gained a cult following among foodies.
Stephen Lanzalotta, who was fired in June from his position as bakery manager at the Micucci Grocery on India Street, is teaming up with Jason Loring, chef-owner of the Nosh Kitchen Bar on Congress Street, and three other business partners to open a 75-seat restaurant called Slab, in the former Portland Public Market space downtown.
Slab will operate in the spot once occupied by Scales, a seafood restaurant that anchored the public market. The space has 30-foot-high beam ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows. If approved by the city, the layout will include an outdoor beer garden with 20 taps and 160 seats.
Loring, who has suspended plans for a new butcher shop in Portland while he works on the project with Lanzalotta, said he hopes to open Slab in March or April.
Lanzalotta, 55, got about 30 business offers after he left Micucci Grocery in a scuffle that included a debate over whether the Italian grocery had the legal right to his recipes. Micucci continued to sell Lanzalotta’s food after he left, including the square “Sicilian slabs,” topped with slightly sweet tomato and two cheeses, and the ethereal, crescent moon-shaped “Luna bread,” made from the same dough.
Lanzalotta considered, but never took, legal action against Micucci. Instead, he began sifting through the offers in his email box, including jobs as guest chef, consultant, restaurant partner and even wholesale manufacturing director.
Lanzalotta met several times with Loring and the other partners in Slab – Matt Moran and Tobey Moulton, who are also partners in Nosh, and Emily Kingsbury, who will run the bar at Slab.
He decided to join with them because they were “basically saying, ‘Swing for the fence,’ you know what I mean?” Lanzalotta said Monday in an interview at the space, which the baker noted is semicircular like his Luna loaves. “They’re really backing me.”
“This presented the best opportunity,” he said. “It’s closest to my heart, and they gave me the soundest package. It really felt like it was going to work over the long term. I didn’t want to just have another two years of where I was an add-on, or it was capturing a piece of my dream. With this, this has the potential to capture everything. We’re starting off here as a restaurant, but the sky’s the limit as far we’re going to take it.”
Loring, 37, said although he is younger than Lanzalotta, he identifies with him because the baker is a passionate person with a creative drive who just needed an opportunity to show what he can do.
“He’s got stuff that he’s been making for years that he just stands by and perfects,” Loring said. “So I just said, ‘Show me a menu.’ He showed it to me, and I wouldn’t change a thing. The only thing we did was pare it down.”
Slab will serve six to eight appetizers, four or five sandwiches, six desserts and five kinds of pizza. The over-the-counter “Sicilian slab” will now be a “hand slab,” to differentiate it from orders for that other kind of slab – a sheet pan pizza that serves eight, or a half-slab that serves four.
Lanzalotta also plans to make two types of pizza that he called “wedges” when he served them for a short time at Micucci Grocery.
“They’re the same dough, but radically different toppings,” Lanzalotta said. “They’re both very spicy. One caters to vegetarians. It’s cannelini beans with Italian pickled vegetables, and the other is pepperoni and pepperoncini mixed with a spicy pepper paste that actually gives it the flavor of buffalo wings.”
Lanzalotta will also introducing a sfinciuni, a true Sicilian pizza sold in a smaller piece than a slab. He calls it “hard-core Sicilian street food.”
“That’s basically cheeseless,” Lanzalotta said. “It will have a grating of a special cheese from Sicily, but it’s prepared with a totally different sauce, a long-simmered sauce. A slab is (made with) a quicker sauce, so it’s fresher tasting and very red. This other long-simmered sauce is actually called casalinga, or housewife-style. The sauce takes a couple of hours to make. It has other vegetables, like carrots and onions, to sweeten it and it’s developed over a long time. There’s anchovies in there, which gives it saltiness.”
Vegans will be happy with his fifth selection, pizza with crust made from chickpea flour and topped with almond cheese or vegetables such as broccoli rabe. It’s so thin, it’s almost like a crepe and can be folded and eaten like a taco.
“That’s something I haven’t done since Sophia’s,” Lanzalotta said, referring to the bakery he owned on Market Street.
A typical sandwich at Slab will be a “meatloaf meatball sub.”
“It really tastes a lot like a meatloaf because it has diced peppers and fresh Luna bread crumbs in it, so it’s really a very light kind of meatball, very ethereal,” Lanzalotta said. “But then pack that into a Luna bread and toast it with cheese and sauce so it’s a really substantial meat lovers’ sub.”
As for desserts, Lanzalotta said he’ll bring back favorite sweets from Sophia’s such as orange-caramel “girelle” puff pastry spirals – Italy’s answer to morning buns – and the flourless, wheat-free, nut-based cookies that made USA Today name the bakery one of the top 10 cookie stops in America. Also look for “opulent ricotta-creme desserts.”
As for the recipes, well, the partners have been hammering it all out in legal contracts over the past four months.
“The recipes will belong to Slab,” Loring said, “and if he leaves they will still belong to Slab.”
The chef said it’s impossible to run a restaurant and have the recipes be kept secret. But he said that if Lanzalotta ever decides to leave, he won’t stand in the way of the baker using them elsewhere.
“I have no interest in stopping him from progressing,” Loring said. “Even if I hated him and everything (fell apart), I’m just not the kind of person who’s going to be, like, ‘You shouldn’t be allowed to do anything like this ever again.’ That’s just ridiculous, as far as I’m concerned.”
In return for the recipes, Lanzalotta was made an equal partner in the venture. There is also the promise of much more to come. Loring would like to bring some of Lanzalotta’s cookies and other baked goods to the wholesale market. And if the restaurant is successful, the partners will consider opening smaller versions in Portland suburbs.
For Lanzalotta, the deal was sealed when he had some issues in negotiations and Loring told him to just speak his mind and keep communicating. Lanzalotta said it made him feel like he was joining “a brotherhood.”
“We’ve always reached resolution, so it builds stronger and stronger,” he said. “They’ve given me that sense of security, that I can really trust somebody again.”
Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:firstname.lastname@example.org