Ryan Carey has lived in Portland “since before there was an Otto’s.”

“I remember when Otto’s first came out, a place to go get a fancy slice of pizza was kind of a novelty at the time,” said Carey, who is the owner of Noble BBQ on Forest Avenue. “And since there’s been Otto’s, there’s Lazzari, there’s Monte’s, which I think makes the best pizza in Portland.”

He continued to list Portland pies and pizza restaurants, from wood-fired pizza at Flatbread to “old-school places” like Pizza Joint. Then there’s his own Detroit-style pizza served at Noble, the only Detroit-style pie in town, inspired by a pizzeria he visited while on a barbecue tour of, nope, not Detroit, but Austin. Detroit-style pizza is deep-dish, with crispy edges. (Noble is on hiatus now but will reopen on Dec, 8, and the pizza will return.)

Talk to restaurateurs about the bounty of pizza options in the Portland area today, and they use words like “blessed” and “spoiled.” Yes, the pandemic fueled the demand for inexpensive take-out food and launched a nationwide pizza boom that helped keep Portland’s pizza restaurants open, but the city’s pizza scene was on the rise even before the coronavirus came to town. And it’s not just pizza places that serve it.

“The Portland pizza scene is pretty dynamic for a city our size,” said Steve Quattrucci, owner of Monte’s Fine Foods, a market on Washington Avenue that sells Roman pinsa pizza, the crust made with a blend of local bread, rice and spelt flours. It’s one of only a handful of pinsarias in the country, he said.

“I think we can be really proud of the offerings here,” Quattrucci said. “We’ve got some great wood-fired pizza at Tipo and Radici, and Belleville is doing their focaccia-like pies and thin-crust pies. Noble BBQ is doing a Detroit-style. And of course there are lots of New York-style places.”

Slicing the pie

With all the options, are pizzeria owners feeling the heat? Is the competition getting to be too much? They say no, the more mozzarella, the merrier. More than one pizza maker interviewed for this story referenced the old adage that a rising tide lifts all boats.

“What I’m seeing is a lot of the pizza that’s popular in Portland is all very different from each other,” said Emily Kingsbury, co-owner and general manager of Slab Sicilian Street Food, maker of a pillowy Sicilian pizza that has been a longtime Portland favorite. “Yes, there are a whole bunch of places you can go get some pizza, but it’s not like a cookie-cutter thing.”

Coals’ Margherita pizza Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Jeff Perkins, CEO of Portland Pie Co., said that along with more pizza restaurants, Portland is getting more customers as the city grows.

“I don’t feel as if we’re just splitting the same pie we’ve had for 20 years,” he said. “I really feel like there’s more consumers out there, and so (the city) can handle more restaurants.”

Quattrucci also believes there is “room for everyone.”

“Do we compete with Otto for take-out business? Probably,” he said. “You have to be mindful when you come to market of what other folks are doing and what they’re charging, so there’s competition that way. But you know, Portland is not an overly competitive town. Everybody is very collaborative here.

“But we’re all chasing dollars. There’s only so much in the pie, right?”

Quattrucci thinks that some of the new passion for pizza arises from the current interest in bread making.

“In the past few years, people have become more aware of the bread they’re eating,” he said. “Or they’re eating less (bread) but they’re eating better quality bread. So I think this pizza thing ties into that because places like us and Belleville or Radici, I mean, we’re really all about the bread, right? Or at least that’s where we start. We’re really making an artisan bread product and then putting on our special toppings and local products.”

Mike LaRubio, sous chef at Monte’s Fine Foods on outer Washington Avenue in Portland, adds basil to pizzas that will be sold as slices in the store. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Quattrucci learned how to make pinsa in Rome, then spent about a year developing his own recipe. (Most pinsarias, he said, use a flour blend purchased from an Italian flour manufacturer.) His crust is an artisan bread product that’s been cold-fermented for three days.

Burgers and beer

In some ways pizza is like burgers. Both come with a variety of toppings and in many styles – and people will sample all of it. Perkins calls it “the No. 1 comfort food.”

“Everybody likes it,” he said. “There’s so many different styles, but when you come right down to it, it’s bread, sauce and cheese, and you put your toppings on it.”

Portland Pie, which now has eight locations in Maine, was a unicorn when it opened in 1997 with its “craft dough” and pies named after places in Maine. That dough came in flavors like beer (still the most popular), garlic and basil. Portland Pie, Perkins said, was the first in Portland to offer gluten-free crusts and vegan cheese.

Today the choices keep coming, most recently with the addition of Brickyard Hollow, a brewpub that opened on Commercial Street over the summer and promptly set up citywide delivery of its big selection of pizza pies. Friends & Family, a new café and market at 593 Congress St. in Portland, has started serving pizza, “both round pies and grandma slices!” as the business says on Instagram, on Mondays nights. And at the new Forest Avenue restaurant Falafel Time, owner Qutaiba Hassoon is selling pizza alongside his Middle Eastern food, including a halal pepperoni pie made with turkey pepperoni for his Muslim customers.

Pizza maker Alex Bittues takes a Margherita pizza off the grill at Coals. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Variety is the spice of life

Variety in Portland’s pizza scene is as much about toppings as the sheer number of pizza restaurants.

In 2002, at the end of his senior year in high school, Tom Barr started working at Corsetti’s in Westbrook, serving simple pizzas with the usual toppings, like pepperoni and sausage. Back then, Barr said, most local pizza places used similar ingredients, often ordered from the same supplier.

Today Barr owns Lazzari, a Neopolitan-style pizza restaurant on Congress Street where the wood-fired oven delivers pies like the Mortadella and Pesto, topped with mortadella, pistachio pesto, pecorino, and house-made ricotta and mozzarella.

“A cynical person might say that Portland is being overrun with New Yorkers, and New Yorkers love their pizza, so (the variety) is not super surprising that way,” said Barr, who also owns Taco EscoBarr. “When I’ve opened places, I’ve always tried to consider what was needed in the marketplace, and pizza was something that as long as you’re doing something different, I think there’s room for all of it. It’s almost its own food group. You can eat it every day.”

At Coals in Portland, the pizza is grilled. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Eric Shepherd, a spokesman for Otto, said the public was skeptical when the pizzeria introduced its mashed potato, bacon and scallion pie. “We actually had to offer money-back guarantees on that pizza just to get people to try it,” he said.

The pizza’s popularity has kept it on the menu ever since. Not only that, you’ll find mashed potatoes on pizza all over town. (The fall special at Otto is a short rib-and-mashed potato pizza.)

“It does say something about this town, and you could even argue that maybe there’s a style emerging a little bit, a more culinary approach with unique toppings,” Shepherd said, citing the use of “Maine-centric flavors,” such as Aroostook County potatoes and even blueberries.

Brickyard Hollow, for example, is selling a pizza topped with Maine blueberries, roasted shallots and lemon zest. Flatbread uses many foods sourced from Maine farms, including toppings such as roasted Maine potatoes and local free-range chicken and goat cheese.

And don’t forget the hot honey trend, which is, well, hot. Bonobo on Pine Street has a Hot Honey Pie topped with red sauce, hot capicola, Calabrian chilies, pickled red onion, fresh mozzarella and local honey. Belleville drizzles a pepperoni pizza with hot honey, and Monte’s adds it to soppressata pizza. Brickyard Hollow had a summer special with strawberries, bacon, hot honey and chicken, while Coal’s “Bee Cool” pizza is topped with three cheeses, tomato, basil, pepperoni and hot honey.

Slab’s pickle and bacon pizza. Photo courtesy of Slab

The next trendy topping may be pickles. While lots of burger-style pizzas include small bites of pickles, the topping appears to be having a moment at pizza parlors across the country. Perkins said about half of Portland Pie’s customers ask for extra pickles on the Crescent Beach, the company’s cheeseburger pie.

A recent special at Slab came topped with prosciutto cotto, cheddar cheese, house pickles and mustard aioli. The restaurant also made a thin crust pickle-and-bacon pizza for a while that, Kingsbury said, “sold super well.”

Staying afloat

Portlanders’ love of pizza helped all of these places stay open over the past year and a half. Carey’s main menu item at Noble BBQ may be self-evident, but surprisingly pizza sales during the height of the pandemic supported the restaurant’s bottom line. “Pizza has great margins,” he said, “which is good just for the sustainability of the business.”

Shepherd said Otto is “almost where we were in 2019 in terms of sales.” Billy Etzel, owner of Coals Portland, which specializes in grilled pizza, said his sales didn’t go up “but we still did fairly well.”

“Things have been pretty good overall,” he said. “If we had the staff, I think we could be doing even more business than we’re doing.”

Slab “made it through as unscathed as we possibly could,” Kingsbury said. The restaurant used time during the pandemic to expand its frozen pizza line, which is now in 30 markets in Maine and New Hampshire.

Mike LaRubio, sous chef at Monte’s Fine Foods adds mozzarella to pizza before the pizza goes into the oven. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Quattrucci said Monte’s has seen an increase in take-out sales, but the market also lost money at the beginning of the pandemic when it had to cut its hours, “so maybe it was a wash.”

The byproducts of the pandemic – rising food costs, staffing shortages, supply chain issues, and so on – are more of a threat now than direct competition from other pizza places, Quattrucci said. Flour prices, he noted, have gone up 50 percent in the past few months.

“Where we’re seeing struggles now is that people just aren’t working (back in their offices),” said Perkins of Portland Pie. “Lunchtime used to be very busy for us because of all the local businesses. We were delivering to them and doing office catering. So that aspect of it is off, but our delivery sales are up, our take-out sales are up. People are starting to come back into the dining room.”

Portland Pie is even planning to expand, adding two more locations by the end of next year, likely in the Lewiston-Auburn and Augusta areas.

More pizza? Maine says yes, please.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.