I swear I didn’t set out to make a pizza crawl out of the 8+ hour drive to Maine, but sometimes these things just happen. We had a wedding to attend on Saturday but had to make it in time for the rehearsal on Friday night, so rather than take chances with traffic, Anna and I hopped in the car and set out on Thursday night with no real plan. It had only been 24 hours since Slice Out Hunger’s $1 Pizza Party, so I would have been fine if I didn’t see a slice for a couple days… or so I thought. Any pizza nerd worth their sauce would have done exactly what I did. Here’s how it panned out.
Stop #1: Colony Grill in Stamford, CT
This is just what happens when you’re driving through Connecticut on I-95. I don’t even think about it anymore; it’s automatic. “Do you want to get a quick bar pie?” Of course the answer is a resounding “YES!” We called in the order (my usual, a pie with hot oil on the whole thing and sausage on half) and it was ready about 5 minutes after we arrived. I love these bar pies because they’re like a little snack. Definitely not counting each slice in my pizza tracker. Delicious pie and perfect for the road. Colony Grill is a must-visit, but ALWAYS get hot oil on your pie!
Stop #2: Mystic Pizza in Mystic, CT
When driving from Brooklyn to Ellsworth, Maine, it only makes sense to stop in the Connecticut town that has its own pizza movie. I hadn’t been to Mystic Pizza before so this was a big one to check off my list. All I can say is the pizza is just like the movie: I’m sure it’s important and meaningful to some people who experienced it at critical times in their lives, but I’m not one of those people.
Stop #3: Pizza By Alex in Biddeford, ME
This is the one pizzeria we planned to hit once the wedding invitation arrived. Pizza By Alex is the family business of pizza lover / designer / artist / visual wizard Steph Mantis. As a friend and colleague in pizza, this was an important pilgrimage for me. I finally had a chance to experience the spark that ignited Steph’s passion for the slice. Steph’s dad runs the pizza house (as they call it in these parts) and, as he tells it, nothing has changed since he’s been in charge. The manual dough splitter lost a spring but they haven’t replaced it in fear that they’ll funk something up in the process. These are Greek-style pizzas, common to New England, with their thick, oily base and pan-seared edges. It’s a pizza that makes me think of childhood. A real throwback. They used to use all Blodgett ovens but replaced the main gear with a conveyor oven the day Steph was born, about 30 years ago. How adorable is that!?!?
Stop #4: Otto in Portland, ME
I had pizza at an Otto location in Boston a few years back when they hosted me for an event for my book Viva La Pizza! The Art of the Pizza Box, but this was my first time at a home base Portland, ME location. Otto specializes in unique topping combinations like scallion and potato, pulled pork, etc. This was a nice shift from the standard pizza toppings I’d been scarfing lately, so I think it’s safe to call it a palate cleanser. The slices were totally tasty and I was excited to see their menu mention all the vegetarian and vegan options!
Stop #5: Lynwood Cafe in Randolph, MA
I wrote an article about bar-style pizza for Pizza Today Magazine a few months ago and Lynwood Cafe was a featured interview of the piece. I heard about this place from Adam Kuban and even sent Anna as a pizza ambassador to do some recon for the article. This visit was my first, having only tasted one of their pizzas as it was delivered to me by an old hometown friend when I was last in Boston. It’s a classic pizza tavern, complete with the bench seating and wood paneling that define the era in which it was last decorated.
The pizza here is somewhere between the Greek-style of Pizza by Alex and the bar pies of Colony Grill. Just like Pizza by Alex, they bake in pans and use paper shells instead of pizza boxes. The pizza is unsophisticated in the best way possible. I found myself so intoxicated by its dense, buscuity crust that I was completely unable to stop myself from finishing the entire pie. It was thrilling. And the family that runs Lynwood is so sweet and lovely. It’s the kind of place that makes you feel like you’re home.
Stop #6: Columbus Day Festival in Providence, RI
Almost every stop on this entire trip was unplanned, but this is the one that really caught me by surprise. I was driving back through Rhode Island when I remembered my friend Billy Manzo has a pizzeria in Providence. I got into town a little early and decided to check out the Federal Hill area. This is the Italian neighborhood of Providence and I’d never spent any time there. I parked on a side street and wandered, figuring it wouldn’t be hard to find the hot spots in this relatively small city. I walked a block or two before I noticed the faint whisper of crooner music. Surely this must be some Italian restaurant blasting music to attract customers. But as I got closer and the music got louder, I realized there was more going on. Yup, I landed in Federal Hill just in time for the Columbus Day feast!
I didn’t have time to eat anything since I was on my way to see Billy, but I did notice a cool pizza stand selling “Pizze Fritte di Nonna,” or Grandma’s Fried Pizza. I know what you’re thinking, that this must be some gross fried chicken pizza monstrosity, but it’s actually a very old tradition in Naples. The word pizza hasn’t always meant what it means today. Before the 17th century, the word is used to describe any bread product that has been flattened. Pizza fritta is simply a dough that gets flattened and fried, receiving its topping only after it’s out of the fryer.
This particular stand offered two types of pizza fritta: a savory version with tomato and grated cheese and a sweet version topped with sugar and cinnamon (I think it was cinnamon, but this is unconfirmed). The woman behind the fryer (clearly not a nonna) leaves untopped pizze (plural of pizza) on paper towels to soak up the grease. Sofia Loren’s character in L’oro Di Napoli (1954) makes pizza in this exact same way. This is the style of pizza made by many women in Naples before the time of sit-down pizza restaurants.
Stop #7: Federal Hill Pizza in Providence, RI (Warren, RI)
There was no better way to end an impromptu pizza road trip than this. I met Billy Manzo at Pizza Expo a few years back. He’s a certified master pizzaoilo, trained by Tony Gemignani at the International School of Pizza. He’s a great pizza maker and an awesome guy. I met Billy at the site of his forthcoming pizza playland, where he has two different oven types, four dough mixers, and a space that used to be a vaudville theater! It’s super cool and I can’t wait to go back for the grand opening.
The restaurant isn’t open yet, so we drove 20 minutes to his original Federal Hill Pizza in the lovely town of Warren, RI. Billy specializes in Neapolitan pizza and Roman pizza al taglio. I tried both but the “tag” was my favorite. The pie I had was super light on the inside and crunchy on the outside. The sauce is kicked up big time with herbs and salt. This is a Saturday afternoon pizza. The Neapolitan pizza Margherita is as classic and elegant as you’d expect. I really liked the simplicity of the tomatoes he uses. He’s doing these pies in an electric Pizza Master oven but switching to a wood-fired oven at his new place. I’ve had great pies out of both these oven types so we’ll see what happens in a few weeks when Billy’s new flagship pizzeria opens its doors!