The Impulsive Traveler: The many flavors of Portland, Maine
By Joe Yonan,
Portland, Maine, overflows with history: literary, artistic, military, maritime. You can tour the childhood home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who published his first poem in the local newspaper at age 13. You can visit the studio just south of the city where Winslow Homer painted images of the sea that would become nothing short of iconic. In a fort-turned-museum, you can learn about the city’s harbor defenses during the War of 1812, the history of clippers, 19th-century shipbuilding.
Call me shortsighted, but when I’m in Portland these days, I skip all that. Perhaps it’s because I’m living a rather old-fashioned existence on six acres in a small town in southern Maine this year, so when I want a break, I crave something modern and urban. Truth be told, I come to Portland for one thing: the food. It has always struck me as better than it needed to be for a city of just 70,000 people, but once I learned that the greater metro area is home to a half-million, it started to make sense. In addition to all that history, the town has a youthful energy, an artistic bent and a passionately locavorean food scene.
I invited a similarly food-obsessed friend from Boston to join me for an eater’s itinerary. We arrived in town just around lunchtime. If I have to choose just one place for a midday meal, it will forever be Micucci Grocery, an unassuming brick box just a few blocks from the ferry terminal that anchors one end of the city’s Old Port neighborhood. When we pulled into the parking lot and headed inside to the bustling market, my friend Necee gave me a quizzical look. “Just follow the smell of the pizza,” I said as we inhaled.
“But it’s everywhere,” she said, smiling.
I led her through the little aisles packed with wine, canned tomatoes, dried pasta and spices and around a corner, where the perfume of yeast, sauce and cheese was particularly intense and where a few people were already lined up ahead of us. We all stared at a little window where baker Stephen Lanzalotta had dropped a paper plate scrawled with the words “5 more minutes,” and we were getting a little dizzy with anticipation. When more paper plates began showing up, these topped with gigantic rectangles of thick pizza, the line started moving.
If you’ve never had Sicilian slab pizza — and before I first came to Micucci, I hadn’t — be forewarned that it’s unlike any other. Lanzalotta’s crust is puffy and soft, almost brioche-like, and the topping is minimal: just a smear of sweet-tart tomato sauce topped with mozzarella. We grabbed a corner slice, coveted because of the extra crispy chewiness on the edges, snagged one of the only two tables (there are also a few spots to stand) and shared the first slab while we awaited a second — and watched the line grow to 20 people.
You may think that one slice of pizza does not a lunch make, but trust me: At a full pound per slice, this is a meal. A big one. So big, in fact, that we put off our plans to hit my favorite bakery and decided to head instead for a tour of one of Portland’s newest food sensations: Urban Farm Fermentory, which is supplying area markets and some restaurants with fermented drinks such as mead (made from honey), kombucha (from tea) and cider (from apples, of course).
Inside its storefront in the warehouse district a few minutes from downtown, the fermentory’s founder, Eli Cayer, poured us tastes before showing us around the place, including the garden out back where he’s growing some of the herbs that flavor the beverages. All the sips were delicious, but the one that made us burst into a chorus of “mmms” was a dry-hopped cider, complex and floral from the time the juice spent in a tank with hops. When we tasted the kombucha — ginger first, then blueberry — I asked Cayer how he walks the line between letting this wild-fermented product do its thing and controlling it for consistency’s sake. “It’s always changing,” he said, so timing is key: He supervises the “booch” as it ferments and gets flavored and bottled, all at room temperature. Once it’s transported to markets, it goes into refrigerators, and that’s when it stops changing.
Suddenly, as the sun streamed through the windows, we found ourselves longing to get outside on this unusually warm fall day, and more specifically to get out onto the water. The shortest cruise around Casco Bay’s islands, though, is 75 minutes, which would have cut into our precious eating time. Then Necee suggested that we take a ferry to and from Peaks Island — the most populous in the bay — without getting off. Smart woman. At 45 minutes, it was just enough time to pass some sailboats, see the trees turning colors, feel the wind on our faces, see a gorgeous silhouette of Portland in the late-afternoon sun. And we never got that how-much-longer-is-this-boat-ride feeling.
Two pastries, one nap and some lolling-about-the-hotel-room later, we found ourselves having pre-dinner and wine at one of Portland’s most popular new restaurants. The owners of Hugo’s, an 11-year-old fine-dining institution in town, opened Eventide earlier this year in a slip of a space next door. The place’s mission is oysters, so we ordered a dozen, split between those from Maine and those “from away,” a winking use of a localism. We immediately took to evaluating the differences — East Coast briny vs. West Coast creamy — and agreed, Massachusetts loyalists that we are, that nothing beats a Wellfleet. Before any Mainers react in horror: The Pemaquids, harvested just a couple of hours away, were a pretty close second.
We didn’t linger too long over our oysters, because our day was culminating in a meal at Bresca, just down the street in the Old Port neighborhood. In this intimate (18-seat) setting, open since 2007, chef-owner Krista Kern Desjarlais creates an ever-changing menu of small plates that reflect the seasons. That might not be so unusual anymore, but one bite of her crazy-rich spaghetti with pumpkins, walnuts and Gorgonzola cheese, and I was reminded of Manhattan’s Prune restaurant and Gabrielle Hamilton’s focused, rustic cooking. By the time we got to dessert, and I refused to share the buttermilk panna cotta, I’d started thinking that it might be even better. It must have been the wine, because how could that really be true?
Maybe there’s something in the sea air that gets to you, that fills you with Maine pride. I’ve heard more than one Mainer say with confidence that Portland’s food scene is better than Boston’s, for instance, and I’ve always (politely) scoffed. But I’ve been in the state for the better part of a year, and I’m starting to see their point. If nothing else, I think of it this way: If little Portland were plunked down in the middle of Boston, it would be a food lover’s destination. And I’d head there for dinner — or lunch, or pre-dinner oysters, or mid-morning pastries, or a macchiato — anytime.
Yonan, a Post editor, is on book leave. He can be reached through his Web site, www.joeyonan.com.