Portland’s Greek Pizza Sleeper, Plus Stealth Somali

Portland, Maine

Two breakfast places regretfully missed in Ogunquit:

The Egg and I (Route 1, Ogunquit, Maine; 207-646-8777) (across from the Lobster Pound).

The Omelette Factory (422 Main Street, Ogunquit, Maine; 207-646-4110).

Peanut butter is a side dish at the Omelette Factory!

Wow. Two dedicated breakfast specialists in one town of 1,226 residents. This, my friends, is where I intend to retire one day.

But wait! I just learned there are even more!!

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Sometimes the biggest finds are obvious places that are undervalued by locals. No one in Portland doesn’t know Bill’s Pizza (177 Commercial Street, Portland, Maine; 207-774-6166). But no one in Portland seems to fully recognize the majesty of their pies. Sometimes it takes an outsider to point out taken-for-granted brilliance. For example, until beer writer Michael Jackson began writing rapturously about the artistry of Belgian ales, the Belgians themselves did not realize their beer was anything special. It was just stuff they unthinkingly brewed and drank. Bill’s Pizza is like this.

One likely reason for the underrating is that they make a little-known subgenre: Greek pizza. Greek pizza is a vanishing style that was once fairly common in New England, upstate New York, and Pennsylvania. It’s characterized by thin, well-done cheese (usually pocked with crunchy burntish nodes); plenty of oregano; and a highly ridged, lightly oiled crisp crust.

Greek pizza is not an acknowledged term among pizza historians. I use it to refer to pizza baked by Greek restaurateurs who scrambled to get in on the action as pizza was becoming ubiquitous in the 1960s. If you spot pizza fitting this description, ask about the original proprietor’s nationality. You can bet that Greeks started the place. You can also bet that the place is at least 30 years old.

I don’t need to check genealogy at Bill’s. They do an archetypal rendition of this style, and it’s smashingly tasty. Notice the large bitten-off missing portion, below. My breach of professional self-control is the best possible indication of killer deliciousness:

This reverse shot shows the trademark ridged crisp crust. You’ll want to study it closely in order to identify specimens quickly in the field:

The crust was so crisp (the end crust was positively explosive), the cheese and sauce so perfectly dovetailed, the spicing was so deftly optimized, that I did something I’d never before done on this CHOW Tour: I returned for another portion. In my position, every iota of hunger must be carefully rationed. I’ve seldom finished an item, much less asked for more.

This place is that good. And I’ll bet it has been since 1949.

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Middle Street is a cool little eating block on the edge of downtown Portland. In the photo above, Duckfat is the place with the orange and blue awning, and Norm’s East End Grill is to its left. I didn’t try Ribolita (41 Middle Street, Portland, Maine; 207-774-2972), at the end of the block.

Duckfat (43 Middle Street, Portland, Maine; 207-774-8080) is a breezy, cool little place, very informal and relaxing. They keep their menu quite small—a great way to ensure quality:

White bean and chorizo soup, a special, was humdrum, though. I don’t usually order soup specials. Great soups require long repetition to perfect. My bad.

Frites, fried in—what else?—duck fat, were quite the luxurious experience. They were oversalted and too greasy by far, but have undeniable appeal as an infrequent (say, biannual) extravagance.

Also calorically profligate (what, you were expecting health food at a place called Duckfat?) was the duck confit panini, with herbed black pepper Boursin spread. It contained some other stuff, too, but the thing atomized before I could fully analyze it. This pressed sandwich was so light and crisp as to be positively insubstantial—ingested more by osmosis than by chewing. The kitchen exhibited formidable Zen chops via the effortless transformation of heavy ingredients into a beautiful ducky cloud.

Their beignets looked good, but I didn’t try them. And I somehow completely missed the sweet chestnut and mascarpone panini, a daily special I just now noticed in the photo, above. A humiliating failure.

Norm’s East End Grill (48 Middle Street, Portland, Maine; 207-253-1700) is a similarly airy, laid-back place. The staff’s incredibly friendly and the beer’s good—Riptide Red, brewed by local Casco Bay Brewing Company, is a magnetically subtle brew with a hint of malty sweetness. Their pulled-pork BBQ sandwich wasn’t authentic, but it emoted palpable kindess. Fun eating.

After a few hours of digestion while driving around Portland in search of duct tape for my decrepit suitcase, much excitement flared as I spotted Al-Amin Halaal Market (269 St. John Street, Portland, Maine; 207-774-3220). Who’d have expected Somalis in Maine??

Podcast #1, MP3: The whole story.

Podcast #2, MP3: Goat curry on spaghetti in the car.

The curry (shot on my car’s roof).

Podcast #3, MP3: Curry appraisal: very good, not quite great.

Halfway through my meal, I realized they’d forgotten to pack my samosas. I ran back, grabbed my crunchy fried meat pastries, and returned to the car, where I took a bite and just barely turned on the recorder in time to catch the bliss in podcast #4, MP3:

Killer, killer samosas!