In spite of the rain (or because of it), few souls were out on the salty streets of Camden Saturday night. On the unsteady dock, a group of kids stood looking out at the irregular slate gray swells. A parliament of people in rain boots and coats stood under the awning of Camden Cone, waiting for a double scoop of coffee. Inside Peter Ott’s Steakhouse, middle aged couples in nubby sweaters were sipping well-oaked chardonnay and waiting for their turn at the salad bar. Malcolm and I parked under a streetlight by the harbor master’s house and hurried together toward the shelter of Seabright, the third in the acclaimed trio of restaurants by chef (and James Beard award semifinalist) Brian Hill that round out Camden’s Francine Bistro and Rockport’s Shepard’s Pie.
Outside, cords of wood were stacked to feed the pizza oven within. It was already cozy and hearthy and we were swept inside the open door of the space most previously occupied by the now-shuttered Paulina’s Way. The sea-level space is a casual urban grotto, with exposed brick, stone, and metal elements. We were sat snugly between a hutch holding dishes and the kitchen. From the oblong plates, to the house-made vinegar on the table, it was all just so, exactly right. It smelled right. Their menu is simple, which is all we are ever hoping for anywhere, but especially when it comes to pizza.
Malcolm: Sitting in between a rack of dishes and the kitchen door, I felt a twinge of jealousy at the other customers who were more comfortably spread out with friends and family in booths or along the bar. This feeling was quickly soothed by the soft light, the brick walls, and the perfectly chosen finishing details of the restaurant. The only thing to break the spell was the insistent, mind-scrambling scratch and thump of dubstep music that was loud enough to be out of place even in the terrifyingly dark recesses of an Abercrombie and Fitch, let alone at an inviting pizza restaurant priding itself on the elegant simplicity of its ingredients.
I started with a vodka martini, up with olives, a fairly civilizing drink, and moved on to a stemless glass of Umberto Cavichiolli and Figli Lambrusco, a fizzy red wine that’s fun like a peasant with his pants off. Every time I took a sip I did a little chair dance, and it was perfect with the charred plain pies. I found it for sale at Rockland Food Service, if you’re local. The crust was bubbled and black in places, irregularly shaped and cut into squares and triangles. The first pizza arrived on a metal pan, then the second was perched on a second level above it. All I need in life is this: homemade mozzarella, San Marzano tomato, and basil ($10.99). Oh, and also, this: One of the evening’s specials, topped with shucked cherrystone clams, garlic, oregano, hot pepper, and Parmesan cheese ($14.99), which was sprinkled with bright, fresh parsley after it cooked.
Let’s take a minute to talk about clams on pizza. Clams on pizza. Bad idea jeans, right? It’s possible you think this is gross and offensive. And I understand you. Especially if you don’t live near the ocean, this probably seems borderline post-apocalyptic. But, like anchovies in a classic Caesar salad dressing or fish sauce in Thai food, it has that thing. I’m not going to use the “u” word, but you know what I mean. Salty, savory, it strikes a note that satisfies by adding a briny bit of fish, adding depth of flavor without reading fishy. At least, it shouldn’t. Fish pizza sounds bad to me too, yo. I’m not a monster.
But this pizza, oh my word. It was buttery. A little spicy. But mostly supple and divine. The crust was a little weak to stand up to all the heavy topping, but I would eat this slice with knife and fork or resort to using every napkin I am given. I don’t know much about many things, but I know this: you have to try this pie.
And then, there is the fresh mozzarella. It is classic; it is holy. When it is good, we speak of it in hushed tones as when we invoke the almighty Modern Apizza on State Street in Ye Olde College Town, Connecticut. The distinguishing feature of the fresh mozzarella pizza at Seabright is the fat dollops of mild, milky cheese, made there. The sauce was acidic and sweet. And there was lots of green basil, wilted by the heat of the pizza. It was almost a transcendent moment of happiness. The only obstacle standing in my way was, as Malcolm mentioned, the driving beat of some unnerving dubstep which was incongruous with the place and not very much fun. And I’m saying this as a 34-year-old mother, so you know I have my finger on the pulse of cool.
Malcolm: I didn’t grow up eating pizza, because I grew up in Maine in the 1980s, where I came to think of pizza as giant chewy donuts topped with sweet overcooked tomato mush and piled with pounds of cheese that snapped when you bit it, the way Silly Putty breaks when you pull it apart quickly rather then letting it slowly stretch out. It wasn’t until I went away to school in New Haven that I learned about the pizza the rest of the world (and Jillian) was eating, Neapolitan-style pies cooked for just a few moments at absurdly high heat in ovens that left big blistered black bubbles of char on their surface. It’s the kind of pizza that can be mucked up with silly ingredients and toppings, but only if the pizzaiolo also truly loves his plain mozzarella pies first. It’s the kind of pizza I keep hoping to find here in Maine, and Seabright is the closest we’ve come so far to finding it.
My experience at Seabright was thoroughly enjoyable. It is a warm, artfully-crafted but not too self-conscious or precious pizza place. On the water. With excellent wait- and bar staff. I liked it. A lot. Order one pizza a person, and take some home. As our server noted, it is excellent with a fried egg on top for breakfast, or, if you don’t make it that long, as a late night snack when you get home from the bar. It is the first truly outstanding pizza I’ve had in Maine. I will be back there again very soon.