Thursday, April 17, 2014
Coming soon to a shop strategically located in downtown Portland, master bread baker and pizza meister Stephen Lanzalotta will return to grace us with his great slabs of dough slathered with tomato sauce and cheese--otherwise known as Sicilian pizza. The shop is to be called Slab and, I predict, will give front-runner, Otto Pizza, a big run for its money.
The Otto promenade along Congress St.
This very notion brought me to Otto — the reigning pizza-purveyor in Portland – where I had dinner the other night with a friend. Yet the idea of a pizza dinner is anathema to my culinary sense. I like my evening meal to be more cohesive with a beginning, middle and end. Multiple slices of high-calorie fare merely slaughter my middle-age waistline mercilessly.
Enzo Pizzeria is also the Otto domain
It doesn’t mean that I forgo pizza as the main meal altogether or don’t grab a slice on the go. Places like Flatbread, Bonobo’s and full-service eateries Vignola-Cinque Terre and The Corner Room have special pizza ovens — brick, wood-fired behemoths — where the inimitable thin-crust style pizza emerges resplendently.
Otto, on the other hand, has the standard-issue oven without the aforementioned flourishes. Their reputation, however, has been built on their knack for making an incredible thin-crust style pie.
Is this a culinary revelation? Hardly. Thin-crust pizza has been around a lot longer than, say, chicken Kiev. But when Otto came to town it was like a memo from the Messiah. Are we that gullible to let something like that tilt our better senses? Or do we not know any better?
I’ve found Otto's pizza to be sporadically good. Some of the toppings are ordinary while others show originality. One of the most popular creations that Otto brought us was the potato pizza. Here is a pie topped with mashed potatoes, bacon and scallions — a concoction better suited to side with roast meat or chicken. But to assault a crusty slice with it is blasphemy. I’ve tried it. It’s as unappealing as my dear mother’s perversely inspired sandwich — peanut butter with mashed sardines.
Still the foodie babblers love it.
Pizza edified with layers of chicken, curry, pulled pork and the like should be locked up, too. The pizza I favor is the simplest kind. We should more often follow the Italian style where pizza is not overly embellished beyond some spices, a modicum of cheese and good tomato sauce. American pizza is too flush with allusion.
But there we were out for slices of pie. We walked into the Arts District Otto branch with its great bar and desultory grouping of tables — all lit with filament bulbs, kind of old hat. Next door is the original hole in the wall where Otto pizza-making began. Adjacent is another room with its own entrance, bar and tables. Confusing? So many places named Otto make Harding Lee Smith’s empire of “rooms” seem short and snappy.
The Enzo room is an awkward space. Try squeezing into one of the chairs at the few tables pushed up against the wall, where your back ultimately faces the room. We chose to sit at the bar, which was very comfortable.
The Enzo bar and dining area
We ordered a salad to share. It came loaded with lettuce, fennel, radishes and red onion in some sort of creamy dressing. I don’t think these were locavore-rated greens, and the fennel slices were as hard as aardvark wings. In fact, the salad was piled so high it literally lost its balance when our waitress put it in front of us and a few pieces slid off onto the bar. No matter. There was still plenty left.
The Otto salad
We both had a glass of Sicilian red wine, which was first poured from a nearly empty bottle. I asked the bartender not to upend it because I didn’t want any of the sediment to get into my glass. The wine tasted off.
We ordered two small pizzas at $12 each. One was topped with Genoa salami, fresh tomato slices and scallion; I asked for the red version, which meant there was a layer of tomato sauce as a base.
Admittedly, these were two great looking pies, the top one being the Genoa salami and fresh tomatoes
The other pie, in contrast, was much richer looking with sautéed mushrooms, vidalia onions, bacon and herbs on a cheese base.
The second pie with mushrooms, bacon, onions and herbs set over cheese
After tasting both pies I had a revelation regarding Otto's pizza. Ordering an on-the-go slice doesn’t do it justice. Fresh out of the oven — all shiny and crisp — is the real deal.
The third room, the Otto bar next door
The dining room adjoining the bar
Instead of eating a re-heated slice that’s been sitting on the counter, Otto’s whole pie freshly baked was a treat. I loved the texture of the crust — very thin, firm, crackly almost. As for the toppings, the tomato and salami version was the clear winner for both of us whereas the mushroom-bacon seemed muddled.
Ultimately under the right circumstances Otto Pizza has a rightful place in the annals of great pizza-making in Portland, even when the other pizza-meister returns to town.
John Golden has written about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for Downeast magazine, the Boston Globe, Cottages and Gardens magazine, Gourmet magazine, Cuisine magazine, the New York Times and the New York Post.
In his highly opinionated blog, John reports on his experiences dining out all over Maine and his visits with food personalities, farmers and farmers’ markets throughout the state.