March 18, 2010

Unpretentious Bonobo riffs on pizza with jazzy flair

— There is a knack for handwork displayed in many corners of Bonobo, with its handy shelves in the bathroom and a weighted rope on a pulley that keeps the door swung shut. A rack that holds wine glasses is artfully constructed out of copper pipe.

That same resourcefulness is in charge of the pizza, thin-crusted and covered with good ingredients.

If there was just a little less of those ingredients on top of the pies, I'd be happier. And after talking to one of the owners, Oliver Outerbridge, I anticipate more choices with lighter toppings, which he calls ''new generation.''

One night's special ($14), with pulled, barbecued pork and cheddar, delivers its unique mix of smoke and salt with every bite. The delectable Verde ($15) offers pesto, spinach, tender leeks and roasted onions, and little white pools of creamy ricotta set on top of firm, chewy crust.

No need to all agree on one topping here, since you can portion the topping out across the pie, splitting it 50/50, perhaps the hearty Farm with sausage and onion, tomato sauce and mozzarella, and Smoky on the other half, roasted butternut squash, Vidalia onions, leeks, gorgonzola and cream.

The Bonobo (and the accent is on the second syllable for anyone else who hasn't watched enough wildlife specials about this endangered, love-happy ape) also has the advantage of cream.

Cream is inspirational on its thin crust, touching up the leeks and mushrooms, with prosciutto for intense salt and fontina for yet more richness. A sparing hand in the kitchen keeps this conglomeration balanced on the triangles of crust as they airlift into your mouth.

''We're trying to broaden people's horizons,'' Outerbridge said. Removing the tomato sauce is one way to do that.

The Marley ($16) grooves along with Jamaican jerk chicken, sausage, roasted red peppers and onions, sauce and cheddar. Each pie measures 13 inches, and a half is plenty for most of us, even if we could indulge in more.

Perhaps sharing one of the two salads would make that less tempting. The creamy Caesar ($7) packed some garlic and lemon, with five white anchovy filets draped on top (but only if you ask for them).

The Herencia Antica Tempranillo ($6 a glass, $18 a bottle) was badly off one night, and pushed aside for a glass of the vibrant Il Filare Sangiovese ($6 a glass, $18 a bottle) that others had been enjoying already. Altos de Hoya Monestrell ($7 a glass, $21 a bottle) packed a lot of powerful flavor into its deep red liquid for a headier drink, but it's off the wine list for the moment.

An Argentine Torrontes from Gimenez Riili ($7 a glass, $21 a bottle) lived up to its grape's floral and lemony characteristics, while the chardonnay and viognier blend from Chile's Oveja Negra ($6 a glass, $20 a bottle) was another good white.

This list exemplifies the friendly attitude of this unpretentious pizzeria, serving good stuff without charging a lot. And service I encountered during two recent visits could not have been better.

A ruddy orange tin ceiling spans three sections above the wood tables, set amid three enclosures to keep each dining area a little more intimate than if the place were entirely open.

Wood windows hang over the dividers, a rustic touch along with the wood-edged tables, and a varnished bar made of boards with worn paint. Both Outerbridge and his partner Eleda Wacker designed and constructed the interior.

Bonobo opened last August following renovations that started in January. Outerbridge said close friends had a recipe for wet-dough pizza, and when he tasted wet-dough pizza cooked in that friend's outdoor oven, ''I thought it was the best food I'd ever had.'' But during the first weeks of business Outerbridge recalibrated his recipe.

''When we opened we didn't have the right recipe,'' he said. ''The dough was too wet; I cut that back. Now it's sticky but manageable.''

An expanded pizza selection, ''next generation, less saucy,'' will offer specials like smoked tomato and tallegio, or smoked duck, roasted oyster mushrooms, Black Forest bacon, and fresh arugula added after cooking.

Lighter pizza might land in its own category in future menus, alerting customers who like their thin crust to dominate.

Twice when I tried the mini crème brulée ($3 for the mini, $6 for the regular size) the top was burned, making the crunchy sugar decidedly bitter and unpleasant, but we discarded the sugar and enjoyed the custard underneath.

Tiramisu ($6), cake soaked in rum, espresso and Kahlua with whipped mascarpone; cioccolata ($6), chocolate pudding with whipped cream; and Maple's Organics gelato and sorbets can also be ordered for dessert.

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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