PORTLAND, Maine — Stephen Lanzalotta makes what he calls Sicilian “slab” pizza, bubbly slices of a lofty, rich, but light-textured crust topped with a thin layer of smooth, sweet tomato sauce and channels of gooey cheese.
Lanzalotta used to make it at Micucci Grocery until last year, and now he’s at Slab, a restaurant he opened earlier this year in the old Portland Public Market building with partners Jason Loring (of Portland’s popular Nosh Kitchen Bar), Matt Moran, and Tobey Moulton, as well as bar manager Emily Kingsbury. The menu is Lanzalotta’s and he came up with it when his partners encouraged him to “swing for the fences.”
When the group formed, they planned to find a hole in the wall, where the menu might be eight items long, and that suited Lanzalotta just fine. He’d grown up among mom-and-pop Italian markets around New London, Conn., and once ran a small bakery of his own in Portland named Sophia’s. But that modest space never presented itself, and instead the partners found themselves enamored of the vacant Portland Public Market building.
It was a vast room with 30-foot ceilings and windows that stretched just as far. They gave it a gut renovation, turning the “concrete slab,” as Lanzalotta describes it, into an industrial-yet-polished 70-seat dining room with a bar featuring 20 taps. Outside, they created more than twice as many seats, bringing the total capacity to 230, plus a soundstage for live music.
The name for the restaurant, “Slab,” came to Loring as a tribute to the original space and to the signature product, the Sicilian pizza. It uses very specific flour, tomatoes, Sicilian olive oil, sea salt, and a mozzarella-provolone blend from Wisconsin that melts particularly well, says Lanzalotta. “When the pizza comes out right, it’s a volcanic landscape,” he says, describing its black, white, and red topography.
That said, Lanzalotta’s pizza is a relatively young product in the self-taught baker’s repertoire. It’s a derivative of his Luna bread, a crescent-shaped loaf with a gorgeously airy, yet resilient, crumb that Lanzalotta has been making for decades and modestly calls “the most versatile bread on the planet.”
On the Slab menu, Luna holds beer-braised meatballs, is used for caponata sandwiches, and is the utensil provided for scooping up orange- and saffron-scented Sicilian hummus. The kitchen also offers a rotation of “Sicilian street food” specials, including hearty slaw, fried cauliflower with pepperoncini and lemon aioli, Silician-style jerk chicken with grilled orange wedges, and rhubarb pork osso bucco.
Dessert might be cannoli with flavored ricotta cream — pumpkin is currently in season — and almond cookies spiraled with sticky orange caramel.
Looking around the dining room, Lanzalotta appears content and excited about the expanded menu and the community at Slab. His 24-year-old daughter, Shaia, now cooks in the restaurant’s kitchen, customers he knows from his previous jobs are here, there’s a boisterous crowd at the bar and, at a neighboring booth, a family with a 3-year-old is enjoying a late dinner.
Slab 25 Preble St., Portland Public Market, Portland, Maine, 207-245-3088
Elizabeth Bomze can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.