Aurelia Leonard, an employee at Peng’s Pizza Pies, delivers a pizza to the dining room. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Something strange is happening in the world of pizza. If you pay attention, you can see it unspooling right before your eyes, in every pie you order – Margherita, pepperoni, white clam, BBQ chicken with Sriracha … doesn’t matter. Traditional categories and sub-types have started to elide into one another. Apologies to Raymond Carver, but are we finally coming to consensus on what we talk about when we talk about pizza?

It’s not happening just in Maine, or even the U.S. I spent about three weeks in Sicily last month and ate more than my lifetime allotment of pizza. I dabbled in tuna-and-red-onion, sampled a mortadella-and-pistachio-pesto pie, even ate a few bites of a calzone-adjacent “cannolo,” but apart from a single hole-in-the-wall spot in the hillside town of Caccamo, nobody seemed to be serving the thick-crusted, square-baked pies that we think of as Sicilian.

Instead, it was as if all the Sicilian pizzaioli had assembled to agree on a single standard. Everywhere from local bakeries to sandwich shops, to hyperlocal farm-to-table restaurants, the scene was the same. Nearly every pizza I ate in Italy resembled tweaked, Neapolitan-inspired pizza: thin crust, tomato sauce or sliced tomatoes, mozzarella cheese and toppings.

I wasn’t convinced I was right about this convergence on a mostly Neapolitan style, so I asked at Palermo’s Pizzeria da Alfonso (an off-the-beaten-track spot tasty enough that I ate two dinners there). Yes, they told me, I was correct. Neapolitan is the new baseline, but I needed to pay attention to the differences. By that, they meant a “traditional” dough, which is essentially a higher-hydration version of the same Neapolitan dough with a little extra wheat germ in the mix.

Back home, it’s a similar story. A few iconoclasts like Coals, Slab and Friends & Family add diversity to the pizza scene through more unusual, even niche pies. But in Maine, too, across a half-dozen reviews of pizzerias in the past year alone, I’ve seen the same merging of pizza styles.

Peng’s Pizza Pies fits right in with this trend. Owner and head chef Chris Daniels explained it beautifully when I asked him about his new Biddeford restaurant’s signature dish: “I hate to say it, but I hate the word ‘style’ when I talk about my pizza. There are so many parameters it has to be in if you pick just one, so I take inspiration from what I like about different pizzas,” he said. “I like how with New Haven pizza, they push it into the oven, cook it at a high temperature and let it get a little charred. I like New York’s thinner, crispier style, and the leoparding of Neapolitan-style pizza and how simple it can be.”


The cheese pizza at Peng’s Pizza Pies. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Unshackled from stylistic dogma and expectation, Daniels bakes two varieties of naturally leavened, medium-high-hydration pies: red and white (colors that mimic the restaurant’s interior paint color and tight, modern branding).

Upon first glance, Peng’s red pizzas look very much like the ubiquitous, Neapolitan-esque archetype, especially the cheese pizza ($18), topped with a fantastic house-made tomato sauce that chimes in triple harmony with fresh garlic, oregano and red pepper flakes.

Yet look closely. You’ll spot that Daniels, one of the first bakers at Tandem Coffee & Bakery and original head pizzaiolo for Belleville, ladles his sauce right up to the edge of the dough. Consequently, Peng’s pizzas feel bountiful in their toppings, and they also look an inch or two bigger than their official 16-inch diameter.

Daniels also gives his dough plenty of time in his 670 degree F electric oven to allow the cheese to melt slowly, and to give the perimeter a heavy blistering that echoes New Haven pizzas. The abundance of black bubbles is perhaps a few blisters too many for me, but I know that some people prefer their pizza crust this dark.

As if I needed a reminder, on a recent visit, another customer came in, parked himself at one of Peng’s eight dining room seats (among them, a snazzy, custom-built bench), and in a thick New Jersey accent, directed a friend to order a pepperoni-topped red pie ($20), “Well done. I mean, real well done. Like charcoal well done.” He got his wish.

Peng’s Pizza Pies on Main Street in Biddeford. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

And come to think of it, as I sat one table down, lazily spearing chopped romaine lettuce from my underdressed yet plentifully parmesan-topped Caesar salad ($8), I could have closed my eyes and pictured myself at a Tri-State strip-mall pizzeria, not in a converted storefront that once housed Biddeford’s Engine, a community gallery and maker space.


Peng’s Basque cheesecake. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Yet I bet none of those pizzerias would have served me what I ate next. It wasn’t a slice of Daniels’ superb Basque cheesecake ($7/slice), a dense, caramelized treat. No, my shock came in the form of a white pie with pistachio and pickled Fresno chiles ($24). It has become one of my favorite pies in the entire state. Bear with me if that particular combo sounds a little strange to you.

The base of this unorthodox pizza was the same, cleanly executed riff-on-Neapolitan style you’d expect, augmented by the tang of sourdough. But spread across the surface was a generous layer of herby sauce: scallions, basil, lemon juice and zest, parsley and a little cream. Strewn over that, crushed pistachios, ample garlic, pecorino for umami and two types of spicy peppers.

The Pistachio & Pickled Fresno pizza with a herbed cream base, cheese, toasted pistachios, pickled Fresno chilies, scallions, sweet-and-spicy sauce and pecorino at Peng’s Pizza Pies. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

There’s no template, no precedent I can use to describe the flavors Daniels combines with such deftness here. This pie is a preposterous hybrid of Mediterranean and Thai elements, a culinary centaur, mermaid … maybe a manticore, and it is phenomenally good.

“I’ve been developing that recipe for a long time. I even made it at Belleville, actually,” he said. “I think what happened one night is that I had eaten some really awesome pad thai, and I just started obsessing about it. I was like, man, I wonder what this would be like on a pizza.”

I’m not calling it a Benjamin Franklin key-and-kite moment, but it’s close.

Pizza is dead, long live pizza!


RATING: ****
WHERE: 128 Main St., Biddeford. 207-494-7450.
SERVING: 4-8 p.m. (or sell-out) Wednesday through Sunday
PRICE RANGE: Salad: $8, Pizzas: $18-$24
NOISE LEVEL: Laundromat
VEGETARIAN: Some dishes
BAR: Beer and wine
BOTTOM LINE: Named in memory of chef/owner Chris Daniels’ father (and his distinctive, penguin-like waddle), Peng’s Pizza Pies opened quietly in Biddeford this September. In the intervening four months, it has developed an ardent fan base, and with good reason. The restaurant’s thin-crust pizzas (served with tomato sauce and without) are baked dark, with perhaps more blistering than you’d expect outside of New Haven. If you visit, sample a red pie (cheese or pepperoni – plus or minus hot honey – are great options). But save room for Daniels’ brilliant, completely off-the-wall creation: a white (no tomato), Bangkok-meets-Naples mashup pie featuring crushed pistachios, spicy pickled Fresnos, aromatic herb cream and a generous handful of pecorino. It’s a must-order, as is a slice of Basque cheesecake for dessert. Be forewarned: Peng’s ferments its naturally leavened dough for 72 hours, so once that evening’s pizza bases run out, Daniels and his team cannot make more. And they do sell out … as any restaurant with pizza this terrific should. Check the restaurant’s Instagram (@pengspizzapies) to avoid missing out.

Ratings follow this scale and take into consideration food, atmosphere, service, value and type of restaurant (a casual bistro will be judged as a casual bistro, an expensive upscale restaurant as such):

* Poor
** Fair
*** Good
**** Excellent
***** Extraordinary

The Maine Sunday Telegram visits each restaurant once; if the first meal was unsatisfactory, the reviewer returns for a second. The reviewer makes every attempt to dine anonymously and never accepts free food or drink.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of seven recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.

Contact him at:
Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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