The ownership team of Slab has created one of the most compelling dining haunts in the city — slab pizza at its finest, and the “extras” that tantalize.
Slab — that glamorous pizza palace newly opened in the Portland Public Market building, where the shackled Scales once stood — was slammed from day one and continues to be the people’s choice for hip-hop pizza and variations thereof. That co-owner Jason Loring of Nosh Kitchen Bar fame effected such top-secret shenanigans in pre-opening hype further fueled the hustle of diners panting to rush through those front doors.
The strategy — and the great food notwithstanding — has paid off because this is Portland’s newest smash hit. Since mid-June when it opened, this big-eats behemoth has managed to keep the crowds coming steadily.
If you don’t know what slab stands for here is a simple explanation. Bread baker, pizzameister and co-owner Stephen Lanzalotta prepares Sicilian style pizzas that are thick rectangular slabs covered with cheese, tomato sauce and herbs. The crust and pie is more deep-dish style; Lanzalotta’s crust, moreover is particularly light — more doughy than crisp. The variations include the sfinciuni, typical of Palermo street vendor’s pie with a mildly spicy casalinga, or rustic tomato sauce as well as pepperoni or vegetarian slabs.
After an initial taste of Lanzalotta’s delicious slab pizzas during pre-opening days, I finally made it there for dinner earlier this week. At 7:30 the place was busy but by no means wall to wall. The space is beautifully done if you like that volcanic rough-hewn look. But it works and you know immediately that this is no ordinary pizza joint.
I waited at the bar for my lady friend to arrive and when she did her first words were, “Too noisy.”
We could have repaired to the quieter sections of the dining room but elected to go outside because it was a beautiful night with balm,y cool breezes after blistering daytime temperatures.
The enormous outdoor dining patio is a compelling urban space — a park-like oasis in the middle of the city. It’s cordoned off from the street behind high steel-bar fencing. But I couldn’t help feel that those of us sitting within were privileged folks of a have’s world while those on the other side of the fence were otherwise. Preble Street environs are still a dicey part of town.
The outdoor set up is ultimately a good use of the space: long picnic-style tables and benches are painted bright orange and offer communal seating like one big picnic.
The wait staff was extremely attentive in a bubbly 20-something way. Food is served either on wooden boards or in paper baskets. Because we were sharing everything we asked if we could have some extra plates. These turned out to be long pieces of brown paper-bag-weight strips on which you placed your food. Alongside was a basket filled with napkins (very necessary), wooden forks and spoons.
The flatware detail is a curious one. Was it meant for economies of scale (no dishwasher needed) or for effect, kind of dining cave-man style? My friend thought it was akin to asking Mrs. Fiske after a bravura performance on stage to enter the cave and pick up an eating utensil gouged from a nearby tree.
In any case, those around us were wolfing down slabs — hand to mouth. We opted for the bigger plates that require knife and fork; though much of what’s served can be eaten by hand with a good lick of your fingers afterwards (wash your hands before ordering!) and good use of the available napkins.
Portions are huge. We shared a panzanella salad, more than enough for two. It was a delicious mix of crusty caraway bread, which was actually too hard to cut using those wooden utensils. Ultimately we picked it up by hand and dunkedf the bread in the sauce. The salad contained feta cheese, cucumber, an orange-dill sauce, olives and onions. But it didn’t have the traditional cubes of tomatoes; instead it was slathered in a tomato vinaigrette. It was very good, though too bready.
Not surprisingly bread figures in a lot of dishes — after all, bread baking is Lanzalotta’s forte. Entrée specials were spectacular, though. Under the heading of Monstri (the monsters) on the menu is the meatloaf meatball. This is somewhat like a hero. Stuffed inside Lanzalotta’s famous Luna bread are beer-braised beef and pork sausage meatballs lusciously bathed in a rich, rustic, sweet tomato sauce and gobs of oozing melted cheese. Save room for this dish. It’s the hearty man’s (or woman’s) delight.
The day’s special of Sicilian dog was a spicy locally made sausage mixed with oven-roasted potatoes, mustard ricotta sauce, banana peppers and Slab’s housemade ketchup. This is all heaped on to a crusty pocket of bread; it’s another huge portion. except there’s only one “dog” and the rest is filler and bread. The ketchup is somewhat spicy and tastes more like chili sauce than traditional sweet ketchup.
This was all lusty (and wonderful) food to the hilt. And portion size is not merely monstrous but scandalously huge –a food fair for gluttons.
We were more curious than hungry for dessert and ordered the house cannoli. This is a waffle cone filled with fresh ricotta cream and a wonderful chocolate sauce. For the insatiable sweet tooth, this fit the bill.
I can’t wait to go there when winter comes back to us because it’s the kind of comfort food that sits well as we hibernate in our northern tundra. But at this time of year I’d like to have one or two lighter dishes on the menu even if it were a green salad or a plate of local tomatoes, basil and house-made mozzarella to accompany all the other good stuff. But then I learned from colleague Heather Steeves of her raves of a dish called The Slaw, shaved green cabbage, fennel, red onion, carrots, beets and romaine. Sounds like a must-have next time.
It’s worth mentioning that our tab was quite reasonable. For about $30 each before tip, we had several cocktails and wine and four plates including dessert — a moderate sum for dinner at a pizza palace.
Honorable mention: The distinctive ownership team of Slab is Jason Loring, Stephen Lanzalotta, Matt Moran, Tobey Moulton and Emily Kingsbury
Photos: John Golden