Since moving to Maine, we have been struggling with trying to nail down what exactly the state’s regional pizza style is. It’s certainly got little in common with pizza in New York, those thin, cheap slices with the spiderweb of cheese offering only partial coverage of the sweet tomato sauce underneath. It’s not like pizza in Connecticut, where the New Haven trifecta of Sally’s, Pepe’s, and Modern Apizza are delivering black-charred, thin-crusted, Neapolitan-style perfection. And it’s certainly not like pizza in California, with whatever it is those people are doing. Something with artichoke hearts and chicken, I think.
If pizza in Maine were to be generalized into one, statewide genre of choice, I think you’d have to hand it to the Greeks, or to the town markets copying them and selling by the slice, with a gas fillup. Almost every town in Maine has a “House of Pizza” of some sort, serving up pan-baked, often raw-tasting or undercooked, oily slices, with piles of thick, cheap, pale white mozzarella cheese and heaped with buckets of sweet tomato sauce. It’s cafeteria-style pizza, at best, and it won’t make a pizza lover out of a nonbeliever.
It must be in reaction to a lifetime spent with this disappointing, doughy, bellyache-inducing pizza, then, that has inspired the current round of pizza upstarts, beginning with Otto Pizza in Portland. It was the first place I encountered this entirely new style of pizza, with a very thin crust rolling up to a very thick outer ridge, light on the sauce, with cheese and crazy toppings, heated until crusty on the outside, chewy on the inside, but not charred. And now that I have encountered it again at Flipside Pizza in Brunswick, I’m ready to say it: Maine has defined its own regional pizza style.
Flipside is the brainchild of partners Eloise, Daphne, and Paul, transplants from San Francisco, who also own Brunswick’s “El Camino” restaurant. Occupying one of Maine Street’s oldest buildings, the space is small, accommodating just four tables of diners, with more room outside during the Summer months. The atmosphere is friendly, easygoing, and cool, with tattooed and bearded twentysomethings bustling behind the counter, slinging unique pizzas with locally-sourced toppings.
Our first experience at Flipside proved a bit of a misstep, for which we are partly to blame. We didn’t place an order for a plain cheese pizza, as we often do when trying a new place, since all the beets and mashed potatoes in the world don’t make up for an inferior cheese slice; instead, our cravings drove us to Flipside’s version of a “Pizza Margherita,” ($19) which we expected to be done traditionally, with fresh, maybe even slightly chunky, San Marzano tomato sauce, slices of thick, blistered fresh buffalo mozzarella, and basil. While we waited the 20 minutes for our medium pie, we let our imaginations run wild as we watched the hustle and bustle behind the counter. We raced out to the car to peek at our pizza, fully convinced, by this point, that we would find this:
You can imagine our disappointment, then, when we cracked the box and found this:
What was this? An entirely sauceless pie, with a few chunks of fresh mozzarella, and studded with some dried-out-looking, withered cherry tomatoes? Had someone made a mistake? Had we gotten someone else’s order? What in holy hell was this creation, and what happened to our margherita pizza?
Keeping an open mind, we found it within ourselves to soldier through a few slices, and found a lot to like. The crust was cooked beautifully, with a very, very thin center, and a soft, chewy outer ridge, tucked inside a crisp exterior covered in tiny blistered bubbles, not unlike a good bagel. The cheese was browned beautifully, and even the slow-roasted cherry tomatoes were fun to eat, releasing juiciness and sharp acidity in every bursty bite. The basil, unfortunately, was cooked on the pizza, drying out until nearly crunchy.
Slowly it dawned on us what was going on, here…the folks at Flipside had turned the traditional Pizza Margherita on its ear, offering all the flavors of the original, in a completely unexpected form. Instead of being laid out in front of you visually, this pie really only became a Pizza Margherita when you actually ate it, with the flavors combining with each chew in your mouth in their expected, familiar way. These were people that were thinking so hard about their pizza that they practically invented a new thing; I wasn’t sure I particularly enjoyed it, but I admired what was happening.
Excited, we returned the next day, determined to make better choices. We tried a small plain cheese pie to use as a control, and then went bananas and ordered a second small pizza with chorizo and fresh jalapeno, requesting also that it be cooked “well-done,” totaling $20.
The second round of pizzas were much, much more what we were after. The crust was every bit as good as it had been the night before, and this time, our topping choices delivered. The cheese on the plain pizza was some high-quality stuff, pleasingly salty, with just the right amount of thickness. The tomato sauce was similarly bright and fruity. The chorizo on the other pizza looked a little dark and peculiar, which I owe to my “well done” special request, though little else about this pizza indicated that it had spent any extra time in the oven; it was spicy and crunchy, and provided a perfect compliment to the unexpectedly spicy shreds of roasted jalapeno scattered throughout. Both pizzas were well proportioned, with impressively thin crusts that never sagged, sogged, or buckled under the weight of their toppings.
And oh, the toppings: Like Otto before them, Flipside offers daily specials including buttercup squash & fennel, sweet potatoes, red onions, & bleu cheese, and the ever-present mashed potato and bacon pie (seriously, folks, haven’t we had enough of this potato-on-pizza thing?). Flipside is clearly a student of Portland’s rapidly-expanding Otto empire, putting crazy topping combinations and excellent crust above all else in their seeming determination to define Maine’s emerging pizza identity. This new style is imaginative, with a focus on quality, organic ingredients, care, and craftsmanship. Every creation may not be a winner, but it is definitely an exciting new direction for pizza in Maine to be traveling, and one that Flipside Pizza is representing well.