Ricetta’s Brick Oven Pizzeria

Our never ending quest to find our source for a lazy dinner took us all the way to South Portland last night, to Ricetta’s Brick Oven Pizzeria. It was a spur of the moment decision, prompted mostly by the last minute discovery that MTV was running four back-to-back hours of True Life and Teen Mom, so the chicken thighs and salad went back into the fridge, and out came the takeout menu.

In spite of featuring many of the same “specialty” pizzas I have complained about in previous reviews, Ricetta’s manages at least to have more of an old-world vibe. This is the kind of place that you actually dine in for pizza; you look at the checkered tablecloths, feel the heat of the brick oven, and watch families eat bucketfulls of spaghetti and meatballs.

Because we always test out new pizza places with simple pies, we opted for Ricetta’s somewhat unique take on the Margherita pie: fresh tomato slices, fresh mozzarella and fontina cheese, and a healthy drizzle of garlic butter and basil.

We took our pizza to go, and, by the time we got it home, it was a little on the cold side, so we tossed it in the oven for a few moments. I have to admit that I was a little disappointed when we first opened the box; though the crust looked right, there wasn’t a spec of char to be found, and I found the deviations from the traditional Margherita pizza a little troubling. There was no red sauce (which I suppose was accomplished with the sliced fresh tomato), and where I expected big fat slices of fresh mozzarella, I instead found the standard-issue bulk shredded pizza cheese. The drizzle of garlic butter was imperceptible, also.

I was prepared to write Ricetta’s off, but as I worked my way through my second and third slice, it really started to grow on me. When you throw away your preconceived notions of what this variety of pizza should taste like, and just let it be its own thing, it’s actually not bad. The crust is snappy and chewy, a tough trick to pull off in these parts. I didn’t like, however, what a giant, rolled crust they put around the edge, which tapered down to such a thin layer of dough towards the middle, that a couple of slices couldn’t be pulled away without tearing in half. I could’ve used a base layer of crushed tomato sauce as well; I get the reasoning behind the sliced tomatoes, but it doesn’t really work. The liquid they give off in cooking don’t make a sauce on the fly, they just make the crust disintegrate. The fontina, mixed with the mozzarella on top, was a nice surprise addition, bringing in some really woody, mushroomy flavors just in the nick of time.

All in all, we were fans of this pizza, though it probably doesn’t solve our delivery needs. Since they are in South Portland, I am fairly sure we have to go pick the pizza up, and getting in the car, or for that matter, moving our bodies in any way whatsoever, usually goes against the mood we are in when pizza seems like a good idea. And, anyway, I don’t think their takeout pizza really represents the best work they can do at Ricetta’s. Our Margherita pie was likely much better, I would imagine, the moment it came out of the oven; the car ride home didn’t do it any favors. Next time, we’ll enjoy our Ricetta’s they way it should be done: In the restaurant, drinking a beer out of a crystallized tan plastic glass, and watching a two-year-old blowing ricotta cheese all over the place.

The Grill Room

It’s never easy to please a crowd, especially when they’re family. Malcolm’s sister and her BF are visiting from L.A., and we’ve been eating seafood every few hours for the last four days. It has been decadent and delicious and occasionally outstanding. The dilly haddock chowder at J’s Oyster; sweet fried scallops at Dimillo’s; a superstuffed lobster roll from Patti’s Seafood take out shack in Edgecomb. These morsels were divine. Get down and lick something good. We went up to Rockland for the Lobster Festival, where we sat with the masses under striped tents dipping and dripping in butter. Our dinner at the Boat House there was terrible with sluggish steamers and tepid chowder, but at least the view is amazing. Out and about around town I had two bowls of very respectable mussels (though not as nice as those at 555) in savory broth with lots of crusty bread for sopping up the sweetness. We shared dozens of Pemaquid oysters, all salty and briny, that need little else but a bit of lemon and maybe a smear of horseradish. After supping on fruits of the sea all the long weekend, last night everyone was ready for meat. We also wanted to spend a little less and accommodate the needs and desires of five incorrigible individuals. Using the handy dandy Eat Maine guide I decided on going to The Grill Room. I called at 6:27 and was told we could be seated only outside, only if we hurried. We jumped in the Jeep and drove fleetly to Exchange Street.

We were in time, and hurried through the cool and crowded dining room, where I wish to return for a drink and snack some late fall afternoon, it was so cozy inside. Outside on the little patio, adjacent to a park where derelict children congregate, we enjoyed each others company and some of what was served. The menu is extensive, but manageable and well organized, in logical columns and groupings. Specials should not be ignored. The cheese board was simple but fulfilling, enhanced by honeycomb and quince paste. I found the thin crisps a little oily but fresh baked foccaccia was soft yet toothsome, and I could have gladly taken down the loaf in its entirety, with olive oil and sea salt sprinkled on top. My sister-in-law ordered a delightful tuna in ponzu sauce, molded with avocado and other harmonious flavors. It was palate-cleansing, aperitiffy food, something to savor but not devour. Devouring happened after appetizers. I chose, from the a la carte part of the menu, hanger steak with a side of truffled creamed spinach. Served in a hot crock, the spinach was exactly what you want a side dish to be, rich and almost unctuous. My steak was overdone, though well-seasoned. Our very patient waitress expressly stated that their medium rare boasts a cool pink center, which I wanted but did not receive. She also recommended the Bearnaise sauce – I believe she used the phrase “drink with a straw” – an endorsement I do not take lightly. I thought it added little to the dish. Overall I was contented, which is more than I can say for some of my companions.

Malcolm debated between burger and duck and chose the latter, unhappily. He also went the way of choose-your-own-meaty-adventure, adding grilled asparagus and duck fat fried potatoes. He tells me the potatoes were thick and crispy and that he enjoyed them, though without much superlative, which means they were nothing special, I am sorry to report. And his duck was overcooked. Not at all delicious.

We’re in agreement that the quality was closer to a chain steakhouse than gastro dining in a burgeoning food town. Someone else in our party ordered, as his entree, the “fried shrimp bang bang,” which had a creamy snap; I realize now I don’t know if that’s a positive attribute. Again it seemed more TGI Friday’s than classic fare. But because I enjoy a kicky shrimp I might be inclined to try that one again.

Certainly there were other items that intrigued. The warm ricotta appetizer and bacon and egg salad could be worth revisiting. It was with a sad sigh I exited, stuffed and unsatisfied. It wasn’t cheap either. Two rounds of cocktails did augment the bill, but still. I must say, I was disappointed. The chef, Harding Lee Smith, seems very pleased with himself, plastered all over his restaurants websites. I hope last night’s dinner would not be considered up to his standards, as our group concensus was that our experience at The Grill Room deserved a solid 7.

When family is visiting, you want to show off what is best about your town, to validate your life and make loved ones happy with food and drink. That objective was accomplished many times over, as we nibbled on shellfish and other oceanic offerings up and down Maine’s coast. I only wish we had made a wiser choice for our last dinner together.

Photo: johnny neutron

Noodles, Here and Elsewhere

Many years ago, when the edges of Union Square were still ragged with homeless kids and civil disobedience, there was a cold corner of extant Communism where we sought refuge from the world outside; this place was called Republic. This was where we met after work and where we went for noodles. On the day of the blackout, after a subterranean march with my subway mates to Astor Place, I hiked to Union Square and waited for Malcolm, whom I never did find (because he was trapped in an elevator), but I did encounter a few aquaintances and made friends from strangers on that hot, lingering afternoon. It is a nexus where things seemed a little brighter in the big city all alone, though I don’t know why. When in doubt on a brisk fall day I hurried toward Republic.

I was ruminating on their noodles last night, after a somewhat disappointing experience at Pom’s Thai Restaurant, wondering just what made them so amazing. Certainly, there is comfort in the eternal bowl of broth and carbohydrates. Certainly, there is healing. Spicy Coconut Chicken was my go-to order and I was never disappointed in its warmth or flavor. The atmosphere was reminiscent of a gulag cafeteria, but with meaner matrons. There was a dun-colored din hovering over communal tables and Mao posters flanking the walls. There was absolutely nothing remotely cozy about the space and yet it was infinitely welcoming. The chairs and bar metallic as the metronomic beating heart of a half -sentient robot from the not too distant future. But I loved it.

I will not remember nearly as fondly my noodle dish last night from Pom’s. On our first visit, while basking in the reflected glow of Malcolm’s whorehouse heat, I muddled through a weak Tom Kha Gai and a remarkably sober drunken noodle. It wasn’t bad Thai food. I had truly, deeply bad Thai food in Rockland last January. There the soup was sewery and the curry rank. This was merely mediocre. And I was happy to go back to Thai Taste after an Old School evening of errands in South Portland, to make Malcolm happy and to try again to navigate the extensive menu and emerge victorious. My plan of attack was based on the noodle theory. The noodle theory clearly states that everything is better when drowned in soup, when slurped from a deeply concave spoon. It may have been disproven.

I selected egg noodles, crispy duck, five spice broth (medium) without peanuts. The broth was the watery link, and pulled down the other elements with it to a shallow grave. I will say that it was faintly aromatic with chopped cilantro and parsley and every other ladle was almost nearly delicious. But there were also odd salty, dishwater tastes that just weren’t, well, good. After a few failed attempts to savor the dish as a whole, I resorted to twisting up the noodles and crunching on the duck sans broth. Those other elements were satisfying and rich. Bloated with regret like a senator at Scores, I drove home in the drizzle, dreaming of other bowls in distant cities. I thought about Republic and all it represented, as I exhort all of you to Think Noodles.

Photo: disneymike

Pom’s Thai Restaurant: Should’ve Skipped Seconds

When we move to a new place, one of the first things we do is try and get our source for decent Thai food locked down. Without a Thai place, where do you go when you’ve been mattress shopping all night, and don’t have the ability to cook a meal, or even dial a phone to order a pizza? Based on the favorable reviews we read in the Portland Phoenix and in several other local food blogs, the first place we tried was Pom’s Thai Restaurant. Because of where we were shopping, we chose the South Portland location, as opposed to the sister restaurant, Pom’s Thai Taste on Congress Street.

The first thing that strikes you about Pom’s Thai Restaurant is that it is a little short on atmosphere. Forgoing Thai ambiance in favor of weirdly-modern Ikea pendant lighting and a certain “mini mall dentist” drop-ceiling vibe, Pom’s is whisper-quiet. Even with several other tables of customers, the room is sufficiently silent to make any of the mixed group of diners afraid to speak above a whisper. I’m not immediately turned off, though, by such a lack of attention to atmosphere in either Thai or Indian restaurants, especially when the food is amazing.

We have eaten at this restaurant twice since arriving, and each time, I ordered one of my favorites: Yellow curry with potatoes, snow peas, pineapple, onions, tomatoes, and crispy duck. I should correct that; the first time I ordered this dish at Pom’s, it was instantly given “all-time favorite” status. I have spent plenty of time dancing with chicken curries, but the upgrade to crispy fried duck, on our first trip, was a revelation. This dish, as I received it the first time, was one of the best curries I have ever had. Each component of the dish was outstanding entirely on its own, and each vegetable was cooked perfectly. The snow peas and the potatoes, in particular, were like oversaturated, cartoon versions of themselves; storybook examples of the way you expect these vegetables to taste when they are prepared perfectly. In concert with the perfectly deep-fried duck breast, fanned in the bowl, this dish left ordinary curry dishes behind in its wake.

The heat mounted as I worked my way through the bowl, sweating, crazed like a 1950’s sailor on shore leave in a ladyboy whorehouse. I wanted to try each vegetable combined with every other, I wanted the crispy end piece of the duck breast combined with a chunk of hot pineapple, I wanted to know what eating only the snowpeas tasted like, I wanted to mop my brow and greedily tilt the whole bowl down my throat. At $16.95, I hadn’t just had dinner: I’d had a whole experience, and every day, I waited until I could go back.

It was with a giddy excitement, then, that I sat down at Pom’s Thai Restaurant again, cold Singha in glass, ready to do it all again. I ordered the yellow curry with crispy duck, as is my tendency when I find a dish I really love. But, but…what was this? It looked the same, but it…wasn’t. The tomatoes, previously so bright and bursty, now sat as sad little hard beige wedges of flavorlessness. The potatoes were undercooked and precise enough in their squareness to make me wonder if they hadn’t arrived pre-cubed. The duck was cooked as wonderfully as it had been the previous night, but instead of being artfully fanned atop the curry as a kind of delicious ribbon on a spicy present, it was all kind of mixed together, which took a lot of its crispiness away. The curry sauce, on its own, had the same intense depth of flavor that I remembered from my previous trip, but something was just…off. It wasn’t BAD Thai food; far from it. It wasn’t the kind of food that you write poetry about, though, or even the kind of food that you try and clumsily craft a whorehouse metaphor from.

If I had to guess, I would suggest that the dish hadn’t been cooked together to allow for cohesion; that instead, each individual element was spooned into a bowl, and then a ladle of curry sauce poured on top. It’s not necesarily the wrong way to prepare such a dish, but it does make it feel a little incomplete, and the ingredients seem a little less connected.

Our second experience at Pom’s certainly wasn’t enough to keep us from returning. It’s just disappointing to go from such a mind blowingly-fantastic meal to such a “meh” one. Instead of returning for a third helping of yellow curry with crispy duck at Pom’s Thai Restaurant, we may now be tempted to branch out and try someplace else. And maybe that’s as it should be.

Lost in the Supermarket

It’s dizzying, the display of depth and breadth and prosperity proffered at the supermarket. Grocery shopping has long been an activity we love. In college we would weave our way through the snarl of ghetto to get to the Stop & Shop on Dixwell Avenue, where we waded up and down every aisle, pointing out the ridiculous, the delicious, the processed and overpriced. We’d end up with a cart full of garbage food and laugh all the way back to our dorm rooms. In Brooklyn we were suffocating at the skanky C-Town and other local markets that were anything but super, so we mostly Korean-deli scavenged, living on wasabi peas and tall cans of Coors light. We were lucky enough to live mere blocks from Sahadi’s, a shrine to everything good, bad and decadent about Cobble Hill. These were the days before Trader Joe’s and Fairway arrived in the neighborhood. How did any of us survive?

I should lie and tell you in Mexico I strictly shopped for produce at colorful mercados and bought fish directly from the boats that trawled the Gulf in front of our house. But those untruths would only estrange me from you. The reality is that we bought most of our provisions from WalMart, though we frequented other chains such as Comercial Mexicana and Chedraui, which really puts the “gross” in grocery shopping. Meat was often exposed on ice and veggies looked like they’d been dragged through the mud at Bodega Aurera, the closest store to our little beach town. I went to the local, little market almost every day and would come home with the most fantastic mango or a honey pineappple, the smaller, sweeter cousin of the Dole fruit you know. I loved the women there and I hate that we went so often to WalMart in its many incarnations, but living abroad for so long, sometimes you just want a Triscuit.

It was our ardent desire for variety and freshness that compelled us back to the States; if we tell you it was about weather or family, we’re fibbing. We wanted to go food shopping properly, with a wonky-wheeled cart and guilt about forgetting canvas bags. Farmer’s markets are pure joy and I have long patronized co-ops and other lovely halls of sanctimony for the best seasonal etcetera. But as a suburban girl who saw her hometown drive-in razed to make way for a Super Stop & Shop, who worked as a cashier at Shaw’s for at least six weeks in high school, and who just returned from a foreign land of the opposite of excess, I am relishing the bounty of Hannaford, a very good store seven minutes from our apartment. Whole Foods is Bobo perfection, but it’s not for everyday. And since we’ve been subsisting on sandwiches and dinners out a trip to the market Monday morning was in order.

At first it was overwheleming and I definitely experienced culture shock. The options are incredible. So many kinds of everything. I had no idea where to begin. There are trees in the produce department and a tank of live lobster at the fish counter. There are magazines and maps and sushi and soup. Every passing fancy I craved while we were gone. And more. So much marvelous beer and wine: local, imported, whimsical well-crafted stuff. But that’s a potent potable post for another time. I’m feeling all about food today, a bottomless pit, raiding the fridge while I work and deciding what I will buy again next week. We’ve concluded that we will try it all eventually, and are taking our time enjoying old favorites while choosing pleasing products that are new to us here in Portland. This is a partial grocery list written by someone who is clearly gleeful and reckless and a total glutton:

  • 1. 41 lb cherries
  • 1 whole coconut
  • baby portabella mushrooms
  • Locally Known spinach
  • angus rib eye steak, butcher paper wrapped
  • honey cured ham – on sale!
  • organic chicken thighs – know why?
  • swiss cheese, sliced lengthwise
  • mozzarella pearls
  • deli cut pork tenderloin, see here
  • Heluva Good horseradish
  • a 25.4 oz bottle of Duvel
  • Blue Diamond wasabi soy almonds (these are my new! favorite! snack!)
  • Smiling Hill 2% milk in a glass bottle
  • Orville Redenbacher popcorn
  • Jameson scotch
  • Carr’s rosemary crackers, the world’s most delightful biscuit
  • Fage 2% honey yogurt
  • organic cumin – to be returned
  • When Pigs Fly New York Rye
  • Pinot Evil wine

What does your shopping cart say about you?

Photo: KaizenVerdant

Grilled Pork Tenderloin & Swiss Sandwich

Notes: I didn’t have to leave the house for this one. Holy Jesus. I see your “ham” and raise you a quarter pound of deli-sliced cooked pork tenderloin. Combined on super-sharp rye with swiss and dijon mustard, then grilled in butter and pressed with a cast iron skillet.