Eating at Lazzari, a new pizza restaurant in Portland’s Arts District, I learned a few surprising things. First, you can safely put your hand on the glinting copper dome of their Le Panyol pizza oven, built in Skowhegan from imported blocks of French white clay. Even though the deck routinely reaches 750 degrees F, and the surrounding cavity snorts rancorous blasts of air that top 1,000 degrees, the exterior remains cool to the touch.

“It’s really efficient,” chef Rich Maggi said. “We shut it down and brick it up at 1 o’clock in the morning, and when we come back six or seven hours later, it’s still at temperature.”

Second, and perhaps even more surprising than not getting scorched by a wood-fired behemoth was this: Bakers make extraordinary meatballs.

Maggi, who arrived in Maine in 2012, was the original baker at Brooklyn’s acclaimed Mile End Deli. When he moved to Portland, he was almost immediately recruited into the project that, four years later, would become Lazzari: “It was just a couple of guys (including Taco Escobarr owner Tom Barr), and we pretty much gutted the place and then built the restaurant from scratch ourselves. I had basically never used a power tool before this, and over the next few years, I learned a new trade,” he said.

Along the way, he also put the finishing touches on a meatball recipe that only a baker could have dreamed up. Maggi starts with whey – left over from the housemade ricotta he serves alongside – and adds it to ground pork that he whips together with salt and pepper to create a supple network of cross-linked proteins – exactly the same sort of process that gives kneaded dough its structure. Into this, he carefully folds ground beef and adds puréed raw onions and garlic, which act as natural tenderizers.

His bakerly focus on process and precision creates remarkably light and juicy meatballs ($9). “It’s simply complex,” Maggi explained. “None of it is super technical, but there’s a level of attention you have to pay the whole way through. It’s like baking a loaf of bread, where you have to be on the lookout at each step to see when things are ready.”

No surprise, then, that Maggi’s baked goods reflect the same approach, especially his lean, slow-fermented pizza dough and the Neapolitan-style crust produced when it is slid into the superheated Le Panyol. It’s thin, but not cracker-like, with just enough structure to force a choice: to eat a slice with, or without, a fork.

Wherever possible, Maggi and his team harness that high-intensity heat to prepare pizza toppings, like mushrooms and red peppers, to which the oven imparts a smoky depth that seems to penetrate every single molecule. For Lazzari’s Amatriciana pizza ($15), it’s used to roast onions until they are sweet and goopy: a perfect partner for thinly sliced pancetta, mozzarella and chunks of uncooked San Marzano tomatoes that deliquesce the moment they enter the wood-fired blast furnace.

Ninety seconds later, the Amatriciana slides out on a peel, dry and freckled dark brown on the underside, its exterior crust bubbling with just a few charred blisters. It tastes nearly as good as it looks, thanks to dried red chili flakes that offset the pizza’s richer elements.

Unfortunately, that balance is disrupted by an overly generous hand with grated pecorino cheese that makes every slice too salty. It’s not a one-off error, either.

Lazzari’s apple-and-endive salad ($10), which Maggi describes as “the louder friend of our leaf salad with more bells and whistles,” falls victim to the same mistake. Here, an excess of cheese stifles an otherwise punchy whole-grain mustard vinaigrette. In the gorgeously browned fire-roasted cauliflower ($8), too much pecorino suffocates spicy heat from chopped cherry peppers and aromatics from chopped mint leaves.

Lazzari serves its full menu until closing time – 1 a.m. daily. Staff photo by Derek Davis

And while there is also far too much grated hard cheese on the white clam pizza ($16), the pie is saved by an elegantly simple solution. Atop a pizza layered with fat tridents of flat-leaf parsley, fresh mozzarella and chopped, local top neck and/or cherrystone clam meat that Maggi braises in olive oil, garlic, chili and oregano sits a single wedge of lemon. Fail to squeeze it, and the pie burbles out a monotone of cheesiness. But with just a gentle spritz of lemon juice, the pizza’s many flavors snap into beautiful alignment.

Maggi himself agrees, “The lemon on there is crucial. It opens it all up, and I can’t get enough lemon in the clam sauce to do it,” he said. So why not squeeze before serving? “I want it to be like a ‘choose your own adventure,’ where you have a sense of discovery, like a before-and-after realization,” he explained. “You eat one slice and then another with the lemon and say, “Now I see!'”

Still, I don’t think dinner should come with directions. If the lemon is necessary (and holy cow, is it ever), it should be squeezed over the pie just before service.

A glass of wine – pretty much anything from the succinct, international wine list – helps even more. As does a tart cocktail, like the charred oak cherry sour ($10), made by shaking grapefruit and lime juices with housemade cherry-infused bourbon.

Lazzari’s bar manager, Bill Kespert, produces more than a dozen of his own homegrown infused spirits. Some pair especially well with savory dishes, like cucumber gin and Triple Berry Anaheim (chili) vodka. Both accent flavors from the “seasoning kit” of celery, garlic, fennel seeds and thyme that Maggi combines with roasted eggplant, onions and peppers to build a rustic caponata ($8) that he spoons onto slices of grilled bread and ricotta, both made on site.

Kespert also makes sweeter infusions that complement desserts, like peach-rosemary rum and a seasonal melon gin, either of which would make a great substitute for grappa or a cup of coffee alongside Lazzari’s almond biscotti ($2). Well, the menu calls them biscotti, but they’re actually chubby, crumbly mandelbrot – a similar twice-baked Jewish cookie – not the cantankerously crunchy Italian biscotti that haunt dentists’ dreams.

Mandelbrot in place of traditional biscotti makes a certain kind of sense as a legacy of Maggi’s time baking in Brooklyn. While not exactly traditional, they’re close enough.

They fit with Maggi’s general approach to cooking, as well. He respects classic recipes, but isn’t slavish about following them to the letter, especially if his training leads him in a better direction. Call him tradition-adjacent. “I’m not the cheffiest person,” he said. “My cooking is more like what your grandma would make if she worked her recipes out in a restaurant for 20 years. Maybe what you’d find if you gave a baker a chance to create a menu.”

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

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Twitter: @AndrewRossME