Today’s Sandwich: Roast Beef & Cheddar (Whole Foods)

Location: 2 Somerset Street
Price: $7.95
Notes: There’s no other way to put it. Today’s sandwich was a complete and utter disappointment. We had been excited about trying the fresh sandwich options at Whole Foods, but probably won’t return. After trying to direct me to one of their pre-made sandwiches, and not being able to tell me about what kind of bread they had, I ended up with an utterly anemic roast beef and cheddar on a whole wheat roll. I tried to jazz it up by adding their habanero mayonnaise, but what I ended up with was a lifeless, flavorless mess. I would have been thrilled with this sandwich at half the price; but at around eight bucks, this one simply wasn’t worth it.

Leonardo’s Pizza: Yeah, I Mean, I Guess.

When trying a new pizza place for the first time, I tend to start as simply as I can. Either plain cheese, or if they have it, a Margarita slice tells you about all you need to know about the kinds of pies a place is slinging. Being free of the distractions of toppings gives you a much clearer picture of the entire restaurant, and the attitude they are taking with regard to their product. You can judge the quality of the crust, the amount and spice of the sauce, the kinds of tomatoes that were used, and whether or not the restaurant is paying the extra dollar per pound for decent mozzarella. Indeed, the plain cheese slice is something you could make your life’s study, as a pizza man, so subtle are the interplay of ingredients and so important is component to the whole.

Why, then, do Portland area pizza places seem to have such an absurdly high amount of what I would consider California Pizza Kitchen-style “novelty” pizzas? Why all the goat cheese, the arugula, and the barbecued chicken? Why the leeks, the Gerneral Tso’s sauce, and the philly cheese steak? And why is it that, so far, the more complex the offerings of a particular establishment, the less-competent that place seems to be with the humble cheese slice? Look, if I am looking at a pizza menu, and I see that you are putting buffalo wing sauce on there instead of tomato sauce, and then you are piling on mozzarella, breaded chicken chunks, and gobs of blue cheese, my reaction isn’t “Ooh, how innovative,” instead it’s, “You, sir, do not like pizza.” I’m as excited as you are that you thought to put mashed potatoes and pesto onto a pizza, but unless you have absolutely, unequivocally NAILED the plain cheese slice, I am not going to be impressed by whatever else you’ve decided to pile on there.

Like many other area pizza places, Leonardo’s Pizza has some complicated offerings. In fact, that’s putting mildly. Leonardo’s will put any godamned thing you can think of on a pizza, with four different types of crust, five different kinds of sauce, and then a veritable shopping list of 26 types of additional toppings. I navigated my way past the “Asian Thai Chicken,” with chicken, Thai peanut sauce, mushrooms, red onions, green bell peppers, and broccoli. I didn’t order the “Sausage Alfredo Supreme,” with its Alfredo sauce in place of tomato sauce, chopped garlic, spinach, mushrooms, plum tomatoes, hot Italian sausage, and Gorgonzola. I didn’t want a crust-dumpster, I wanted a pizza. I ordered a plain cheese, medium, regular crust, at $9.95 for a medium.

The results weren’t bad. The crust was fluffy and airy, chewy, with a nice slope down from a thick rolled crust, to a thin crust at the point of the slice. The sauce was nicely spiced and not too sweet, but cooked a little too long. I prefer a brighter tomato sauce. The cheese was of a decent quality, with low grease and nice pull. I was also happy to see that the Leonardo’s style involves a tiny bit more cooking time than we have seen previously. While it certainly wasn’t the charred perfection of a Pepe’s or a Modern, you could see some definite darkening of the mozzarella. After the wet, wiggly slices we have been eating lately, this was a nice surprise.

Ultimately, though, this pizza didn’t make much of an impression. It wasn’t bad, by any means…I just don’t see why you would order this pizza over any of the national chains, and who wants one of those? If anything, my strongest impression of this pizza was that it would be what the jaded teenagers who worked at a Domino’s would cook up after hours, after the doors had been closed for the night. If you took the standard, plain ingredients offered by a chain restaurant, and then ever-so-slightly tweaked the technique and went off-instructional poster (that is, used a tiny extra dough, a little more sauce, and cooked it a little bit longer, and didn’t count how many handfuls of cheese you put on) this is what you’d get. A perfectly serviceable pizza, but certainly nothing special, and nothing I would go out of my way for. If I lived nearby, I could see popping in every now and again, but their own apparent lack of interest in their cheese pies won’t convince me to return to branch out into any of their “gourmet” options.

Moxie Cocktails: The Dark ‘n’ Stinky

Last night, along with my Chimay Blue, I decided to play a joke on my mouth, and bought a 20-ounce bottle of Moxie. For the uninitiated, Moxie is officially, as of 2005, the state soft drink of Maine. It began as a patent medicine in the late 1800s, a tonic sharply flavored with the strong, sharp flavor gentian root, and used to treat everything from “nervousness” to “brain softening.” Eventually, soda water was added, and Moxie was transformed into a curiously bitter soda. While it has fallen out of favor nationally, Moxie continues to be sold in the Northeast.

I hadn’t had one in about 20 years, and in my memory, it stood out as one of the worst things I had ever tasted. When I ran across a bottle last night, I was happy to see that the packaging had barely changed. While the iconic orange can was gone, I now had an extra eight ounces to pour down the sink. I braced myself, and had a sip.

I was stunned by what I tasted. The taste is, at best, unusual for a soda. It tastes Earthy and like a root; a bizarre combination of bitter and sweet that is sure to get in your head. I realized that, of course when I tasted it as a child, it seemed awful; I thought everything that wasn’t a hamburger tasted awful. As an adult, though, I’ve tasted things far more awful than Moxie, usually in alcoholic form. In fact, that’s what Moxie immediately reminded me of: Jagermeister without the annoying maniacal buzz. I set out to correct this oversight immediately with the creation of a Moxie cocktail. A Moxtail, if you would. I wouldn’t.

The obvious choice, with their shared medicinal flavors, is to add Jagermeister to Moxie, over ice. My problems with that, however, are that I am not in a dorm room, I am not actively engaged in a fistfight, and I am not a total lunatic, three traits that prevent me from drinking Jagermeister. A quick search revealed something called a “North Easter,” a repugnant combination of Moxie, gin, and Worcestershire sauce, of all things. My interest in crafting a Moxie cocktail was to make something delicious, so the North Easter was out.

After trying a few different options, I finally fell in love with the following, a drink I am calling a “Dark ‘n’ Stinky.”

Dark ‘n’ Stinky

  • 2 ounces Sailor Jerry’s rum
  • 4 ounces Moxie brand soda

Combine ingredients in an old fashioned glass over cracked ice. Serve.

I’m not normally a fan of spiced rum, but the extra aromatics, backed by the extra alcohol content in Sailor Jerry’s, makes for a potent cocktail. It’s completely changed my thinking about Moxie as a mixer, and is my favorite drink right now. At least, until I figure out what to do with Allen’s Coffee Brandy.

Photo: jntolva

Today’s Sandwich: Italian Cold Cut (West End Deli)

Location: 133 Spring Street
Price: $7.25 (small)
Notes: The West End Deli specializes in all things delightful: a respectable selection of wines, Belgian-style high test beer, and an array of specialty vegetarian sandwiches. Nestled in the menu also lurks the “Italian Cold Cut” specialty sandwich, which shouldn’t be confused with the typical definition of “Italian” here in Maine. The West End Deli’s version packs ham, salami, provolone, tomatoes, red onions, garlic aioli, and hot pepper relish onto a crusty baguette, to my complete and utter delight. This one is definitely going into regular rotation.

Updated 4/27/17: The West End Deli is now closed.

Pizza Post 1 of 5048: Bonobo Versus Otto

In a forgotten corner of Northern Carolina, on the second day of our up-country road trip, we stopped and ate a medium pepperoni pizza with a side of spicy wings, accompanied by an artless packet of Ken’s Steakhouse bleu cheese dressing. “Full House” played silently on a corner-mounted television behind Malcolm’s head, and I nodded politely toward him while attention-rapt by Uncle Jessie, Joey and Daddy Tanner ‘s hatching of an ill-conceived scheme of Stooges proportion. The teen-skirted waitress didn’t provide anywhere near enough napkins to staunch the flow of orange grease, but she did diligently refill our plastic glasses of sweet tea. We ate like third grade social studies elite, wiping our shiny faces with slick hands, then shoved each other back in the cab of the truck for another 300 mile haul.

The above anecdote is to prove that we are not snotty about our pizza. We are democratic food lovers, who just happen to have been weaned in the cradle of pizza civilization. Yet if Wooster Street was our Euphrates, we now reside in pizza Babylon. Based on our first two experiences in Portland, I think we’ll still drive to Modern Apizza when we crave an authentic pie. I almost retracted my lazy insertion of the overused “authentic” but I’m going to let it be. New Haven pizza is the taste of my childhood, and to me it is a platonic ideal and standard of greatness. Nothing compares to the topless tower of a spinach draped white, decorated with lemon wedges, slightly burnt and irregular. In high school, we ditched fifth period to get high and maraud the Pizza Hut buffet; at least thirteen of my freshman fifteen can be attributed to the unforgiving nature of late night Domino’s deep dish; and after college I ate my fair share of post- Piano’s plain slices with heaps of garlic powder and red pepper flakes for good measure. I am Caligulan but discretely discerning in my enjoyment of stringy cheese, red sauce and bread food. I hope somewhere in Portland I can sate such relentless craving.

Bonobo likely won’t do the trick. The smallish restaurant is just up the street on the Brackett corner, and I had read that it was good, and so we met up with friends there on our second drowsy night in town. I ordered carelessly, assured that I would pick up what was being laid down and love it without question or equivocation. This was sadly not the case. Maybe lamb was an odd choice, and maybe I unconsciously wanted to challenge and subvert these upstarts, but when I looked at the little unceremonious hunks of meat studding my otherwise unimpressive pie, I was distressed and crestfallen and sad. The Morocco was also made with goat and feta cheeses, which tasted as tangy as a Cypriot shepherd’s sandal. The sauce had a nice bite, but did not meld with the other, dissonant flavors. I left the table hungry, which has not happened since the Great Got-Dumped Depression and Subsequent Food Strike of 1999. I always finish my pie.

Last night, lightly peckish but not interested in cooking, we toward the Old Port for a slice or something like it. I will leave it to my husband to exalt this unlikely subgenre, but will merely say that in New York the humble slice is given pride of place on paper plate and plastic tray. You can eat it while walking in Midtown, folded over and cramming into mouth hole; you can eat it in a steamy dining area, accompanied by a Cel-ray soda and the sad, single secretarial set; you can eat it, as I mentioned, after a night of booze, boys, and bands. It is, and I do not use this phrase lightly (or ever), all good.

By the time we got to Otto Pizza, we were hungrier than we thought. I was half-anticipating soup-Nazi style antics and thus prepared, approached the counter with unusual boldness. I like to make my indecision known, so all can witness how cute I look while furrowing my brow, considering toppings. Instead, I was all business. I promptly ordered the white, milliseconds after learning it was a mushroom and cauliflower piece of action. Another unconventional choice.

Was this strategic? Malcolm does his litmus with the plain or nearly so, while I like to test the marginal as an indication of what’s at heart, apparently. The easygoing order taker slid our choices from the peel and we waited, in the tiny, high-heated space. We rang up at about seven dollars and were on our way, Manhattan style, avoiding derelicts and other obstables.

The slices, to our delight, were good. Maybe not supreme, not all-time. But tasty and interesting and well-made. Mine had a pocket of basil pesto I wish had been a lazy river. Malcolm’s worked through the go plate with appropriate dexterity, and in fact, I think it just melted away. How’s that for eco-friendly? These pies had character, depth and flavor, and I will return to Otto for future offerings with higher hopes.

Overall, we’ve been unimpressed by pizza in Portland, so far. But, as I said, our bar is set sort of high. But we do not give up. We are starving for affection. There are many other places to try, and I’ll go back to Bonobo, considering my first impression was addled by lack of sleep and feelings of disorientation. And when all else fails, I’ll roll up my sleeves, bust out the yeast, and make some thin crust pizza at home. Such is my commitment to dairy, dough and tomato.

Photo: richardpaulmondor aka studmuffin