The skinny: Portland Pie Co. had big shoes to fill, moving into the former Merrimack Restaurant, a downtown icon for decades.
The small chain has three locations in Maine and went out of state for its fourth location in downtown Manchester. And the Granite State location is definitely becoming popular quickly; it was recommended to us by Twitter followers @jeffsavastano, @bbrady, @sendlabs, @allisonsullivan and @alange710 over the past few months.
The pizza menu is probably one of the more exciting in the region. You start with the crust options: basil, beer, garlic and wheat, as well as gluten-free, which we’re happy to see. No plain pies here.
You can build your own pizzas, starting at $7.99 for 10-inch personal, $9.99 for 12-inch small, $11.99 for the 14-inch crispy crust and $13.99 for the 16-inch large. Gluten-free pizzas come in the 10-inch size and start at $9.49.
Toppings range from $1.25-$2.25 depending on the size of your pie, and there are plenty to choose from. Sauce options include pesto, garlic and oil, and hot sauce, among others. Feta and ricotta are two cheese options, and they would pair well with vegetarian choices such as spinach, kalamata olives and artichoke hearts. And, carnivores, there’s marinated chicken, bacon and seasoned steak among the meats. We also love that there is a gluten-free sauce and GF/vegan cheese for those who need it.
Specialty pies are all named after special Maine places. The Monhegan ($11.49-$18.99) has American cheese, Montreal-seasoned sirloin steak, mushrooms, onions, green peppers, garlic and cheese. The Old Orchard ($11.49-$18.99) has a red sauce base, green and red peppers, mushrooms, artichoke hearts, garlic, cheese and crushed red pepper. Or try a pizza with chicken as the star, such as the Foreside ($11.49-$18.99), which has a spinach and artichoke sauce, Zin vinaigrette marinated chicken, ham, black olives, tomato slices and cheese.
And we think we’ll have to order The Chamberlain ($11.49-$18.99) on our next visit: General Tsao’s sauce topped with pulled pork, green and red bell peppers, carrots, sesame seeds, cilantro and the three-cheese blend.
Review: To get in our last dose of summer during its final week, we had to go with the Red Claws Pie off the seasonal menu ($19.99 for the 14-inch thin crust). And how does a pizza say “summer in New England?” With a lobster topping, of course!
Deidre was a little worried that Portland Pie might skimp on lobster, considering how expensive it is. But we were pleased to see small chunks of it everywhere, getting a bit of meat with each bite. It tasted fresh, and it was cooked well, considering the topping went through the entire pizza-baking process and wasn’t just added at the end.
Butter, garlic and a three-chese blend – as well as artisan shaved cheese added at the end – come next. The butter made the pizza quite greasy — and quite good. In fact, Deidre enjoyed the butter as she would on bread and thinks more non-sauce pizzas should opt for it. The garlic was evident; we would probably advise against ordering this pizza on the garlic crust, as it could be too much. The cheese was a shaved artisan cheese, though we didn’t find out the exact variety. Andrew thought it was a nice change of pace from typical pizza cheese, and fit better with the other very rich toppings. A scallion decoration in the center of the pie made the pizza look adorable. (Yes, pizza can now be adorable.)
We opted for the beer crust (because what else would we pair with lobster in the summer?). Our friendly server said the beer and wheat crusts were the more subtle options as compared to the basil and garlic crusts, and she was right. For those who wouldn’t want a flavored crust, the beer style is probably your best bet. While it’s made with Maine’s own Shipyard Export, the flavor is very light. Andrew thought it had good flavor, but he wouldn’t have been able to pick it out in a taste test. (For those curious, we also ordered garlic breadsticks made with the basil dough. This was an insanely good combination; the basil and garlic complemented each other perfectly, as the flavors were bold standouts.)
The 14-inch varieties at Portland Pie are the only ones that come in thin crust, and we think this helped make our lobster pie the perfect summer pizza. Every bite was so light, you won’t get weighed down like you would with other typical Italian foods heavy on cheese and carbs.
Andrew was a bit nervous about the cold pizza experience, because of the thin crust — which doesn’t always hold up well in the fridge — and the lobster. He was pleasantly surprised when he dug in after a few hours in the fridge. Probably due to the butter, the crust was still moist and chewy. The lobster was drying out a bit, but still packed all sorts of delicious, decadent flavor into each bite. Only the cheese showed any real ill effects from the fridge, but it wasn’t enough to spoil the experience.
We’re sure Portland Pie has the makings of becoming a new icon in Manchester.
Rating: Deidre: 4.5 / Andrew: 5 = 9.5/10 slices
Portland Pie Co.
786 Elm St., Manchester