Sunday, March 9, 2014
In the Twitterverse, it’s being called a “Portland food crisis.”
The very thought of Portland without a hot slab of Sicilian pizza covered in slightly sweet, fresh tomato sauce and a sprinkling of cheese left fans of Micucci’s Grocery, a popular Italian market on India Street, panicking on social media Friday.
Stephen Lanzalotta, the bakery manager at Micucci’s known for his sinfully delicious Sicilian pizza and pillowy loaves of bread, announced in a mass email that he had been fired for advocating for raises for his assistants.
Lanzalotta’s fans now face a culinary moral crisis, because Micucci’s plans to continue selling his coveted pizza and breads. Do they boycott the baked goods in protest, as Lanzalotta has requested because he believes he still holds the intellectual property rights to the recipes?
Or do they listen to their stomachs?
In an email to “friends and patrons” of the bakery, which is located in the back of the grocery, Lanzalotta says he was fired Tuesday after six years for “ ‘overstepping my bounds’ in advocating for raises and fuller work weeks for bakery assistants under my direction, and recommending store changes to improve traffic work flow.”
Rick Micucci, president of Micucci Grocery Co., confirmed Friday that Lanzolotta is no longer working at the store, but wouldn’t say why or give any other details. “It is something I can’t comment on,” he said, “but the bakery is operating as usual.”
Micucci said the bakery would continue to serve Sicilian slabs, Luna bread, Italian pastries and all the other baked goods that have brought the grocery national attention and made it a must-visit spot for tourists exploring Portland’s food scene.
“None of that has changed,” Micucci said.
Lanzalotta takes issue with that in his email, claiming he retains the rights to his recipes.
“No document was ever produced, entertained or much less signed that transferred rights of ownership of my pre-existing recipes to the company,” he wrote, “and in fact, the oral agreement made at time of salary settlement in 2007 was that I would retain intellectual property rights to any recipe I brought from the outside (my former bakery Sophia’s) or created in situ.”
Luna bread, so called because it’s shaped like a half moon, and the Sicilian slab pizza are two of the most popular products at the bakery, and have become something of a local food legend. Customers form long lines, and have been known to wait for a half hour or longer for hot bread or pizza just out of the oven.
Tracy Northup, a stay-at-home mom from Cape Elizabeth, has been a Lanzalotta follower for years, and said she was “stunned” when she heard the baker was leaving Micucci’s. She bought sandwiches made with Luna bread at Lanzalotta’s former Market Street bakery, Sophia’s, and now counts the Sicilian slab pizza as one of her favorite treats.
“The bread,” she said. “It’s absolutely ethereal. It’s cloud-like, but flavorful. I just don’t even know how he does it, but it’s just amazing.”
On Twitter, Lanzalotta fans, including the associate editor of Cook’s Illustrated magazine, expressed their dismay by using the hashtag “#savetheslab.”
Lanzalotta is asking fans of his Sicilian slabs and Luna bread to boycott bakery products at Micucci’s as a form of protest. He said in an e-mail interview that he is also consulting with several attorneys about his options.
Northup was surprised to hear Micucci’s will continue to sell the bread and pizza, and said it made her “really uncomfortable if that’s not something he’s on board with.”
“That’s kind of a big thing to take from him, it seems to me,” she said.
Asked about the potential boycott and use of Lanzalotta’s recipes, Anna Micucci, a co-owner of the grocery, said she had not seen Lanzalotta’s email and could not comment on specifics under the advice of the store’s attorney.
“We have been in business since 1951, and we have proudly and honorably served the community and will continue to do so,” she said. “That’s the only comment I can give.”
Lanzalotta said that while his assistants made what would be considered an hourly “living wage,” in his opinion they were not being given enough hours to make ends meet. “I just wanted kids to be able to pay their rent,” he said. “…I was genuinely concerned with losing good, hard-working people I spent time and effort training.”
The baker said reaction to his email has been “outrage and a promise of solidarity across the board.”
Michael Jubinsky, owner of Stone Turtle Baking School in Lyman, sent Lanzalotta a note of support after hearing the news. He invited Lanzalotta to teach a class at the school, and said he would “be honored to help you in any way that I can.”
“The man is a baking rock star,” Jubinsky said, “and I wish I could do half of what he can.”
Meredith Goad has harvested oysters on the Chesapeake Bay, eaten reindeer in Finland and sipped hot chai in the Himalayas. She writes the weekly Soup to Nuts column and enjoys a good cocktail.