For such a small space, Roma Pizza manages to contain a big personality. Set back from Exchange Street in Portland’s Old Port, in a tiny, green-painted room, there is barely enough room for the four small round tables for dining-in. There’s almost not enough room for the large, brick bar containing at least eight pizzas, each pie split into two flavors for a possible selection of 16 flavors of pizza at any given time of the day or night. And there’s certainly barely enough room to contain owner Luca Pizzuti, whose booming voice warmly greets each customer as they enter, and says goodbye as they leave.
After 25 years in the food industry, this is Pizzuti’s second restaurant in Maine, following the success of the original Roma Pizza in Old Orchard Beach. “They like us in Old Orchard,” he explains loudly over the sound of the Italian television station playing in the background, “over there it’s all big greasy plain slices, while we have 32 different pies, we have sausage, we have broccoli.” And he’s right. While Roma Pizza always has fresh mozzarella slices available, Pizzuti’s specialty pies are as bright and inventive as any other pizza in town, including potato and rosemary pizza, the inevitable buffalo chicken pie, and even a fresh pear and bleu cheese pizza. These aren’t your typical beach slices.
“Other places, they use store-bought dough, or they freeze their dough. The ice crystals form, the ice melts, the dough is never the same. My dough, I make fresh, and I make right,” Pizzuti explains. Another customer asks if he has ever tried the pizza down the street, and Luca shakes his head. “Only my own,” he replies, the implication being that when you feel you’ve perfected something, that’s what you eat, and you don’t bother with what other people are doing.
We began, as our readers know we always do, with a plain cheese slice. It’s the litmus test for the kind of pizza a restaurant is producing, the slice by which everything to come can be judged; if a pizza place can’t produce a proper cheese slice, all of the mango and summer squash in the world isn’t going to fix it. We ordered at the counter, and the owner delivered the reheated slices to our table. It was a nice touch, and Roma Pizza’s plain slice is, in a word, outstanding. The crust is paper-thin in the middle, with crispy blackening from the bottom of the oven on the underside, which tapers up to a fat roll of dough around the outside edge that manages to be both crusty and chewy at the same time, with plenty of snap and big airy pockets spread throughout. The tomato sauce is extremely fresh and light, pleasantly raw-tasting (if a tad heavy on the oregano), with just the right amount of acidity remaining in the chunks of tomato hiding under a refreshingly light-handed application of salty, blistered mozzarella. Each double-sized slice is a meal unto itself, but emboldened by the strength of this first simple piece, we press on to Roma Pizza’s more exotic offerings.
The “Sausage and Pepper” slice is equally intense and interesting, with the same crust and flavorful sauce, but this time studded with fresh Italian sausage and big, thick slices of red and yellow bell pepper that were cooked just enough to retain some of their crunch and character. The sausage was good, but not outstanding; I would have liked a little more spice, a little more fennel.
Just a few slices in, and we are already stuffed to the point of physical exhaustion, but Luca is pulling a fresh pie out of the oven that he insists we try: Roma Pizza’s signature “Pear and Bleu Cheese” pizza, the kind of overwrought novelty pie I am normally dead-set against. Pizzuti’s boundless pride and enthusiasm is infectious, however, and before we realize what’s happened, we’ve agreed to sample a slice. It was trust well-placed in a pizza man who clearly knows his business; the freshly-made pie features more of the restaurant’s thin crust, topped with a very light layer of mozzarella, paper-thin slices of fresh Bartlett pear, and big chunks of sharp bleu cheese. The pear, warmed through from the heat of the oven, while staying slightly firm, provided the perfect textural contrast, and the surprise of the bleu cheese was sensational. It was dessert, but not; a French tart, but not that at all. Rich enough that one slice is plenty, it’s an outstanding slice of pizza that will convert even pizza traditionalists like myself. I am glad I tried it.
Buried in the back of Exchange Street, with an even less inviting back entrance next to some garbage cans in the alley between the parking garage and the back of the building, it would be easy to miss Roma Pizza. To do so would be an error, would mean missing out on some of my new favorite pizza in the city. Owner Luca Pizzuti delivers perfectly on the fundamentals of the plain cheese slice, and then, because he can, expands the orbit of his pizza-making prowess to include more exotic toppings and ingredients that each dazzle and delight, all in a thickly-accented singsong that is enough to keep his customers smiling. It’s an honest-to-goodness slice bar, with plenty of piping hot, creative, carefully-made pizzas, ready at almost any time of day. Stop by without agenda, take a seat, and let Luca feed you with whatever is just out of the oven, and whatever he thinks is best. It’s an afternoon well-spent, and is Old Port pizza not to be missed.
Updated 09/04/2012: Roma Pizza has closed its doors.