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

Today’s Sandwich: Italian Combo (Vespucci’s)

Today’s sandwich is Genoa salami, capicola, provolone, and mozzarella from Vespucci’s.

Location: 211 Danforth Street
Price: $4.95 (Small 6″)
Notes: This sandwich is a celebration of texture much more than it is flavor. Super soft bread, super cool meats, and tons of crispy vegetables make for a satisfying lunch. There are no standout ingredients, and no matter how many ingredients you pile on, you never end up with a cold cut layer thicker than about a quarter of an inch; the whole combination, however, is an impressive version of Maine’s unique take on this sandwich. You don’t get a sandwich from Vespucci’s because you want a gourmet sandwich experience…you get one because you’ve been tacking up drywall all day, you’ve got five bucks in your pocket, and you’re hungry as hell. In this capacity, this sandwich was a success.

Update 4/27/2017: Vespucci’s market has closed.

Workday Lunch: Aurora Provisions

It may be said that Malcolm’s motivation for moving back to the United States has to do entirely with lunch, and more specifically, sandwiches. One of the first things that you should know about us is that we are not snobs. We appreciate, no, we relish, the art of sandwich at every socio-economic level. We’ve deconstructed Subway and ravished Quiznos on many occasions. On our first day in the new apartment, when we needed a break from arranging paintings of ships and ducks and hauling all our clothes and photos and Oriental rugs up to the second floor, we went right down Clark Street to Vespucci’s, a neighborhood deli and market in the Italian style, and floor-feasted back here on very respectable cold cut grinders, to which we gave appropriate thanks and praise. But we have also, and I don’t mean to intimidate you with my cosmopolitanity, lived in Brooklyn, a borough that of late has flexed its ability to engorge your mouth with salami combination, herbed cheeses and artisanal breads. We used to get down on some fancy sandwiches from Naidre’s and Sweet Melissa as a matter of course on any weekday. That is, in a nutshell, how we roll.

A neighborhood sandwich shop is a very good thing. You take a little walk and notice events that aren’t on the internet, perhaps you interact with a full-sized dog or baby, you fill your lungs with fresh air and develop an appetite for meat, cheese, vegetables and condiments nestled between carbohydrates. It was such a confluence of hunger and desire for human contact that led me to Aurora Provisions earlier today.

Aurora Provisions sells wine, beer and other beverages, premade takeway dishes like quiche and shepherd’s pie, baked goods and breads (people, I saw red velvet cake bars. drink in those four words: red. velvet. cake. bars.) fancy shelf staples, e.g. good olive oil, as well as soups and sandwiches at lunchtime. It’s tagline tells me it has “beautiful food for busy people”, and I like that. The soups today were not to my liking, as it is drizzly and chilly and on offer was a gazpacho and a carrot ginger something. I sidled up to the counter. Malcolm requested Southwestern Turkey and I chose the Parisienne Baguette. I grabbed two bags of chips: Covered Bridge brand Creamy Dill Pickle (outstanding!) and Kettle Fully Loaded Baked Potato (just okay) and Liv Organic sports drink, lemon flavor, which is essentially Gatorade made with agave necatar, and was thirst-quenching indeed. Back at the ranch, we unwrapped the deli paper and stood and stared with admiration at the fine craftsmanship of our selections. Malcolm photographed. His bread was soft but toothsome, surrounding fresh turkey breast and mild cheese, but what I noticed most was the sauce; the sweet, smoky and spicy Chipotle set off the flavors and made my taste buds do a little horizontal mambo.

I think I won today’s lunchoff. You simply cannot win against ham and brie. The combination of these two lusty elements is earthy and sublime, neither overwhelming the other, complementing and completing like perfect paramours. Adding interest and tang, therein lied a whiff of dijon mustard and adorable slices of cornichon, all resting within the crusty shards of real french bread. I have not had such spoils since I ate near the fountain of the Place de Voges.

I paid a little over twenty dollars for all that I entailed, which is high when you are just bringing it home. I would absolutely go again for lunch, but I think for us it will become a weeknight stop for foccaccia and a bottle of Albarino, or a morning place for chocolate croissants and a Turtle Latte. As far as fancy sandwiches go, I think they are doing solid B work. Pretty good stuff for a plain old Tuesday.

You can read another great writeup of Aurora Provisions here.

Photo: claudiaredux

Today’s Sandwich: Hand Carved Turkey & Cheddar (Aurora Provisions)

Today’s is a fresh roasted turkey, Vermont cheddar, and chipotle mayo on peasant bread from Aurora Provisions.

Location: 64 Pine Street
Price: $7.95
Notes: A solid sandwich with fresh carved turkey, and a mellow, smokey chipotle mayonnaise that doesn’t overpower the meat. The bread is a winner, too. I’d love this sandwich for about a dollar less. As it stands, it is probably a little expensive to enter regular rotation, but still good in a pinch.

Welcome to Portland, Maine

Every single individual I’ve met thinks this is a perfect place to live. What an astonishing endorsement. In New York, where we lived after college, everyone grits their collective, subway-rattled teeth and espouses the same, shitty maxim: The City is the center of the universe and anywhere else is nowhere.

I liked New York, but I never got a tee-shirt. I never felt like a New Yorker. I could make it there, but frankly it was making me mental. I would prefer to live somewhere saner, a place a bit quieter, safer, and less offensively challenging. I don’t want to combat commuter herds and dirty stairs and sticky turnstiles and higher fares and homelessness just to get to work. I like the scale of this city. I like that I can see the water if I look to my right at the end of my block. I like how it looks in the rain, which is important. And I love how welcoming all these Portlanders have been, so far. From our neighbors, also transplants from New York, to the women in my Nia class, to the jovial fellow who sold us a mattress our first day, when we were driving the 26 foot truck we took up from Florida around town, wishes us well while smiling and telling us what a neat place this is to be.

I can’t remember the last time I loved where I lived. I can’t remember the last time I moved to a place because it felt right. I hope it works out as I’ve planned from my living room in Mexico. I feel like I’ve been here before, because I Googlemapped the hell out of Portland, and specifically The West End, when I needed a change of scenery, a break from the heat and the foreignness. There is lots that is familiar, but also much that is changed and brand new. We’re back after being expatriated and feel a little alien in our home land. We’re seeing the same old with new eyes and loving the experience of investigating the streets of the port, its neighborhoods, restaurants and shops. We’ve been out exploring and want to share what it’s like to be returned with others who love Portland, and those who’ve never been. If there is a magic here, I hope that it is catching. I hope that I learn this place and it gets in my bones. I think it might already be.

Photo: lumierefl