Roma Pizza

Roma Pizza  on UrbanspoonFor 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.

Roma Pizza

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.

Roma Pizza

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.

Roma Pizza

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.

Malcolm Bedell

My first memories of cooking start in Maine at six years old, when I wore a yellow rainslicker to avoid getting spattered by the bacon I was frying in a skillet. You can see more of my writing and photography in regular contributions to LA Weekly, Bon Appetit, Serious Eats, and the Huffington Post, and you can eat my food at 'Wich, Please, located in Rockland, Maine.

  1. Ok- I grew up in the NY/NJ area and have high standards. I love Otto and Pizza Joint… And, Flatbread… I’ll be hitting this up this week. Sounds like Portland is finally getting pizza it deserves!

    1. Definitely check it out, Patrick. Get a plain cheese slice for sure, then get whatever the owner tells you to get, even if it goes against your better judgement.

      1. Malcolm, in case you were wondering “is the pizza as good on March 1st as it was on January 10th?” the answer is a resounding YES.

        We had four slices; a divine plain (that’s my litmus test as well), spinach and feta (straight from the oven and even better than anticipated), pear and bleu cheese (whoaa!), and potato & something… I’m not sure what it was because Tara wouldn’t share it with me… I was told it was good between mouthfuls, however!

      2. Pre-show dinner last night: Roasted potato with bacon, eggplant with smoked (gouda?) cheese, and a pear & bleu. Loving it. I walked in and said “what do you suggest?” and then realized that he wouldn’t be making it if he didn’t suggest it. It’s really the first pizza in Maine that I haven’t smothered in red pepper flakes to compensate for a total lack of flavor.

        Next time we’ll use the back door you mentioned in the review (which is locked after 9pm, fwiw); I kind of like knowing I can get there on foot from the Nickelodeon via Canal Plaza without having to deal with Exchange Street (as if Exchange is Times Square or something, but still…).

  2. Despite the snow, the lame drivers on 295 south and the murderous sidewalk plow machines I went to Roma and I couldn’t be happier that I did! Luca is so friendly and charming! I ordered a large cheese and brought it home to share with the kids since school was cancelled today. My son said, on a scale of 1-10, this was a 20! My daughter said it was as good as Otto’s. And I have a belly ache because I kept eating even though I was full. Because it is so DELICIOUS! Can’t wait to go back!

  3. My wife and I stopped in last night, thanks to your recommendation. We’re so glad we did. Luca is great, and so is his pizza. We got two small pies, one pear and blue cheese (our favorite) and one Rustica (sausage and artichoke), and managed to finish about half of each. The dough is fantastic, and Luca obviously cares about the product he’s serving. He even made us dessert, despite our protests of not having room.

    We loved this place and will definitely be coming back. Certainly among the best pizza I’ve had in Maine.

    1. I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to hear that, Jason. Letting people know about places we really love and believe in is one of our favorite parts of writing this site, and I’m glad to hear you had such a good experience. Thanks for writing!

  4. Brilliant pies. Have only tried a few, but this is the kind of pie I grew up with and have missed like crazy in this town. Had the eggplant and smoked cheese – crazy good! Also the mushroom, pepper and ground beef is delicious. Then there’s the issue of size – Luca’s slices are easily thrice the size of your standard Portland issue slice. I’ll be back. Often.

  5. I visit Roma’s Pizza at Old Orchard Beach almost every weekend that I can. Luca’s slices of pizza are absolutely heavenly. Always a fresh & unique, gourmet slice to choose from. Delicious!
    Rumour has it, Roma’s will have T-shirts for sale with the cutest logo of a lobster eating one of their fabulous slices. This is definately not any ordinary pizza slice, Roma’s makes a
    slice you will SAVOR AND REMEMBER, and you’ll want to go back for more!!

    Thanks for coming to Maine, Roma!

      1. Yeah. For a while I’d stop by and they’d be intermittenly closed during posted hours. Caught them once, though, but now I fear that they may be closed for good. So shitty!

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