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).