March 17, 2010

Follow the crowd to Siano's for a nice brick-oven pie

— When he opened Siano's Brick Oven Pizzeria on Oct. 20, Joe Pompeo did not expect the welcome he has enjoyed -- the folks standing and waiting, the regular crowds.

20080410_TasteNTell
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20080410_TasteNTell

Gordon Chibroski

''We've never been so busy,'' he said. ''Small neighborhood restaurants are just a lot more convenient. People enjoy walking.''

So when you visit to check out the good pizza, steel yourself for the loud sound of success. Even Sunday night, when I ate there with friends and their children, it was a challenge to hear the waitress.

The attractive remodeling job inside the building, located smack in the middle of Deering Center, traps the noise of the room with glazed tiles on the floor, handsome beaded board around the copper-topped bar, high ceilings and exposed brick.

We loved the good pizza and enjoyed the fried calamari, but if I return, I won't order the boring onion rings and awful five-cheese ravioli. Salads served to a neighboring table looked great.

Twin wood-fired brick ovens bake the pizza, made with dough twirled by a pizza maker stationed in front who regularly performs for customers' children.

Pompeo owned a business in this building in the 1990s called Pompeo's Brick Oven Pizzeria. He had the ovens built in 1996, and is glad they are still there despite the building's stint as a variety store, when they sat idle.

Beer and ale are mainstays of the drinks menu, with Guinness, Geary's Pale Ale, Geary's Summer Ale and Shipyard's Thumper some of what's on tap (all cost $4). The wine list holds more than 20 wines; Camelot Pinot Noir, a French wine ($5) is a popular choice.

''There really is a difference between bread dough and pizza dough,'' Pompeo said. He picked up tricks of the trade when he got to know pizza makers in Queens, New York, and elsewhere, while he worked in New York after the first pizzeria closed. That's when he improved on his old recipe. ''Things tend to stick to the hot bricks if you're not putting the dough together properly.''

He also improved on the quality of his ingredients, as he told me with disarming honesty.

''Years ago we would throw a Barber chicken cutlet on a plate and call it chicken Parm,'' he said, referring to Portland's frozen food company. ''We can't get away with that now. The chicken is trimmed fresh.''

I would prefer more thickly cut eggplant in the eggplant Parmigiana ($8.99 for lunch, $12.99 for dinner), but it is otherwise a fine, large version, the coating still crisp and the Parmesan and other cheese savory and browned. The marinara here is full of impact, a forceful balance of sweet and tart. But the linguini should have come out of the pot sooner.

We hadn't asked for appetizers to come earlier than the entrees, the server said, and that was why all our food arrived together. Some of it wasn't quite hot.

If the onion rings are a frozen product, maybe there's a better one available -- although heat would have improved them, they were too bland, and the coating too chalky to be good.

Due to a mix-up, which the server recognized as soon as she set the bowl down, we received the spicy buffalo wings ($8.99). While we awaited the barbecue wings we'd ordered, we tried the pungent ones left behind, but they were too hot and sour to enjoy.

The barbecue wings were another story, sweet and barely spicy and a perfect antidote to the hunger of one of us, whose five cheese ravioli ($11.99) was inedible. Its pasta was strangely raw tasting, although it had been boiled.

Again, Pompeo had some insight into that. ''If there's one dish that you would have an issue with, that would be it,'' he said.

With a hungry crowd to cater to most nights, he and his staff are always on the run. A ''good product,'' as he calls his food, is part of that, and the pizza is its basis and foundation.

Some at the table fussed about the darkened crust, but it was essential under the ricotta, fresh buffalo mozzarella and provolone of the ''Woodfid's'' ($11.99 for a 10-inch pie, $16.99 for a 14-inch), which also bears red sauce, Parmesan and pecorino Romano. The crust couldn't help but sag, but the creamy rich flavors of all those cheeses was wonderful. Plain cheese pizza ($7.99 and 10.99) and pepperoni (an additional $1.59 and $1.99 for any from a long list of additions) was a sturdier slice.

Desserts might come from across the street, Pompeo said, from Good Eats Boutique. That high-quality store has provided individual cheesecakes, a pumpkin cheesecake with gingersnap crust, fresh raspberry napoleons and cakes, all made by the best eight local bakers that owner Jill DeWitt could find.

When I ordered dessert, however, there was only a turtle cheesecake from Sysco, the restaurant supply company. We enjoyed its sweet caramel topping, vaguely cheesy filling and mild chocolate over the graham crust just the same.

N.L. English is a Portland freelance writer and the author of ''Chow Maine: The Best Restaurants, Cafes, Lobster Shacks and Markets on the Coast.'' Visit English's Web site, www.chowmaineguide.com.

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