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Talking Slab with Stephen Lanzalotta, Part 1

Stephen Lanzalotta in the future home of Slab. [Photo: Tom Minervino]

Stephen Lanzalotta is a Portland culinary rockstar thanks to his Sicilian Slab pizza, which he developed and sold out of Micucci Grocery for several years before his well-publicized firing this past summer. In the aftermath, Lanzalotta contemplated a number of offers before deciding to team up with Nosh chef/owner Jason Loring. Their restaurant Slab, coming Spring 2014, will go into the former Scales spot in the old Portland Public Market building on Preble Street, not much more than a stone's throw from Monument Square. The space, right now stripped to its bones, will seat about 70 inside and another 70 outside in the planned beer garden, and is intended to be everything from a place to grab a bite on the go to a dressy date-night destination. Lanzalotta, who also owned bakery/cafe Sophia's on Market Street in Portland years ago and published The Diet Code book, says he wants Slab to be "the most spectacular thing I've ever done in my life."

He recently met with Eater Maine to talk about the plans for Slab, which will serve "Sicilian streetfood." It will of course have the Slab, but will also have several other types of pizza, "shoe" sandwiches served on his renowned Luna bread, and an array of starters, specials and desserts. In Part 1 of the interview, Lanzalotta talks in-depth on the concept, how the Slab originated (hint: it didn't catch on until he made it huge) and how he and Loring, aka Mr. Cabbage and Mr. Pork, find common culinary ground. Check back Monday for Part 2.

The concept of Sicilian street food is a unique one in these parts. What should we expect to see?
Sicily is really a separate country from mainland Italy. It's had different cultural influences. It's probably been the most occupied nation in the world. At least 10 different cultures have overlaid their culinary and architectural influences in Sicily, so what Sicily has come up with is a completely different culinary experience. In mainland Italy, they're used to the "piatti" or the various courses. Sit down and get course No. 1. It's a little more formal. Then you get course No. 2. You build up to the meat course or entree, then step down with a couple vegetable courses and a dessert course or maybe cheese. It's elaborate. It can be five or seven dishes long.

Because of both the heavy Arabic influence and also the occupational hazards of Sicily, most of their dishes are condensed into one thing. You take it and go. In Arabic culture, they create a tagine and other things that are like one-dish casseroles. That's a heavy influence, and also that Sicilians eat on the run. The strongest part of their culture is not politics, not development, but it's person-to-person interaction. They're all on the street, all the time, because at any moment their lives could be broken. So the greatest thing they've developed is that bond and interaction. They're always on the street talking, meeting your buddy. We want to bring that conviviality to Maine, where the typical New England puritanical thing is to be more guarded.

We want to bring a fresh meeting place — not that that hasn't been done, there are other places where people meet — but the idea is to take this ancient culture and make it viable in the 21st century. It's like, Hey, this is a hip aspect of Sicilian culture — sharing a bite with someone else and lingering, or not. That's the beauty of it. You can grab a bite here and go out, or linger and get several things and make a meal. The tastes are going to be different because Sicily is tropical. It has Mt. Etna at the middle, which is an active volcano, yet it's shrouded in snow and ice.

The spices used are beautiful. You don't have to create fusion cuisine over and above because Sicilian is already a fusion cuisine. They have cumin. They have cilantro. You'll find that nowhere else in Italy. There's a heavy use of allspice, cloves, fruit juices, citrus peel. You think of lemon in Italy, but Sicily is more orange, blood orange, tangerine, grapefruits. Those more exotic things that you think of as Caribbean or North African tastes.

I'm a pan-cultural person in my aspect, so I really love the idea of fusion when it's done correctly because I also like the preservation of history. Sicily gives me a place to indulge everything. I can be a deep historian and just cook Sicilian — or try to, because I'm not Sicilian, it's something I'm taking on — and I can indulge my whim in all cultures blending together to make something for everybody. Our hope is that everyone finds something. We're going to have vegan food here, but it'll be super-tasty. It's not just steamed broccoli. And we'll appeal to the omnivore and the carnivore. If you want something meaty to bite into, we'll have it. If you want to avoid meat all together, you can. And it will all be united under the umbrella of Sicilian culinary techniques and flavors, so there's a very unique stamp on it. It's not going to taste like anything else in town.

There's a 2006 article about you in the Boston Globe during the Sophia's days around when your book, The Diet Code, came out, and that was when the low-carb craze hit and sort of doomed Sophia's. Is it safe to say that trend has passed?

Absolutely. That's over and done with. Poor Dr. Atkins died of organ failure. The inadequacies of that diet are clear. As any scientist, nutritionist or chemist would know, the brain runs on glucose. There are no alternative fuels. We have alternative fuels for the body. We can derive energy straight from fat or straight from protein for muscles, but the brain can't do that. It needs glucose. It needs conversion along the way of something into simple sugar. The easiest way to get it is through carbohydrates in the diet, because if you start to break down protein in the body, it's not good because you're breaking down muscle or organ tissue to feed your brain. Not very smart.

The great thing Atkins was onto was that healthy fats should be eaten. Some of those high fat diets never made the discrimination between eating healthy fats and eating all the fat you want. I had people coming into Sophia's and telling me that it was healthier to eat ice cream than brown rice. They'd look at my menu and say, "I can't eat that. I can't eat your Italian cole slaw because it has carrots, which have too much sugar, and green cabbage has too much sugar in it." I'm like, You've got to be kidding me. They'd say, "I can eat ice cream though." And I'm thinking, Come back and see me in a few years and we'll see how we're doing.

I'm an amateur nutritionist and since the publication of The Diet Code, I've plunged further into nutrition. That's a big part of my cooking, making a menu for the consumer that's already planned out to be good for you. There will be indulgent things. But there's nothing inherently wrong with fried food. That's been proven scientifically in many studies. People will say you can't eat seared meat because it produces HCAs (potentially carcinogenic and neurotoxic compounds). It's not always the cooking technique, but sometimes the pairing. It's interesting, almost nothing tastes better with a burger than raw or caramelized onions. Most traditional cultures pair seared meat with onions or cabbage, which counteract the HCAs. Even without the science, these traditional cultures developed the techniques for counteracting unhealthy elements.

That's what I'm trying to do here, predetermine and make healthy choices for the consumer so that when they're getting something that's fun, indulgent and satisfying, but that meets your nutritional needs. I call it, "Having your cake and eating it, too." You can be happy, eat healthy and enjoy your food. To me, there's nothing worse than the steamed vegetable, and I'm a vegetable man. It's funny, because I'm paired with a meat man in Jason Loring. He's Mr. Pork. I'm more vegetables. Especially when you consider what pizza is, especially Sicilian pizza, which doesn't have cheese on it.

We're going to make a version of that, a street pizza from Palermo that uses breadcrumbs and olive oil to make a similar delivery as to what you get with cheese. It has a long-simmered sauce. So we're going to make the Sicilian Slab, which is what I'm known for most recently, then we're going to have this really authentic Sicilian pizza too. The difference will be that the Sicilian pizza will have just a real simple sprinkling of authentic cheese from Sicily called "caciocavallo," or "horseback cheese" — they traditionally thought the cheese was cured over the backs of mules or donkeys as people rode in so it has a pouch look to it, almost like how mozzarella is cured these days. There will be the breadcrumbs on that along with the long-simmered sauce to develop flavor. Instead of getting the flavor from the cheese, it will come from a sauce simmered for hours. It's called "casalinga," or "housewife-style." The name comes from the idea that all day long she's working around the house and the sauce is on the back burner.

The Slab is different because we use a really fresh, bright tomato sauce to bring the tomato flavor as far forward as possible. So this other pizza will be made on the same dough and look very similar, but the Sicilian style will taste completely different because the sauce is simmered with carrots and onions and turns orangey and becomes very complex. You get two different representations of Italian culture: One is authentic Sicilian from the streets and one is Sicilian-American pizza that we know here, like you might find in Brooklyn — it has the cheese and oregano, things we recognize as how pizza is supposed to be.

No one would accuse Jason's Nosh menu of being healthy. Are there any competing food philosophies between you two?
Not really. What we really have in common is our sense of whimsy. You go into the bathroom at Nosh and it has those big pig murals. You can also see it in the dishes. And meeting Jason, he doesn't take himself too seriously. He really likes to have fun with cooking. I am much the same way. Some of the things we'll be serving here, though they'll have a deep historical root, will be bent or twisted to either suit New England flavors or an American outlook so that I'm not a hardcore fanatic. It's more than just adapting to the scene.

That bit of comic whimsy makes things more playful. We both have that as such a strong component of our culinary approach. That's what really unites us. It overrides any of the differences. We laugh, though, because I'm Mr. Cabbage and he's Mr. Pork, but you put those together and it's a great dish. That's how we see ourselves — when you put us together, it's stronger than either one alone. For instance, the meatballs we're making will have a pork sausage blended with the beef. And then with my Luna bread worked in, we're going to have a super-moist meatball that I'm going to call a "meatloaf meatball." It's fun, a little bit New England. It's very recognizable, it's got the pork in it. There will be a few things on the menu that will be a nod to him. The fried foods and the meat ragu, the oven-braised pork — these will be right up his alley.

The bold, ambitious concept and space must feel a lot different than what you had at Micucci's, which was basically a little pop-up bakery out of an existing store.
At Micucci's, I was working under their employment. They basically rescued me. I was out of work after Sophia's. I was making a living as an interior designer and painter. I got my start at Micucci's after I went in and cleaned and repainted their store. That's how it all started. As I was working there, they learned from the community who I was. They learned I had baking skills.

So Rick (Micucci) came up with the idea to cut me a piece of the warehouse to bake some breads. In the summer of 2007, it was very different. You couldn't see the bakery. It was in the same location, but that brick archway was a solid wall. I had to walk all the way around the warehouse to deliver the bread to the register. That was the summer I came up with the idea of the Sicilian Slab. I enjoyed working in peace, bringing out my product as needed, but I'd see the lines at the Micucci deli counter, people standing four or five deep waiting on deli orders.

I grew up near Providence where you'd go into any mom-and-pop grocery store and there would be "mama's pizza" on the counter, one bianca with anchovy and one just sauce and cheese, served cold, but really delicious. I thought that idea would be great there. Rick was adamant that I was hired to bake bread, not do sandwiches or anything like that, not vary anything in the store. So this was bucking the trend, getting the pizza out. I put it out at the deli and no one was interested. It was like the size of a small note pad. After a few weeks of frustration — because I knew the stuff was really good — I doubled the size of the exact same pizza and called it the Slab and we served it down by the register.

Within days, it was a hit. The exact same pizza, but now "pizza abbondanza" — a big, one-pound slab. For whatever reason, that caught on. That's when I coined the phrase "Sicilian Slab" because it was like a plank. That was its selling point at first — the size. The taste and flavor was already there. That's how it got its start. That changed the face of the whole bakery. It started out as a bread bakery, with lots of different breads. It became oriented 95% toward the Sicilian Slab. It's interesting that this thing I had to fight management and the public to get introduced caught on to become the local sensation that it has, even receiving national press. That snowballed after I was fired at Micucci's into this. Jason said, "Now I know that you're nationally recognized, I don't want someone else to scoop you up. We can do something together." At that initial meeting, we felt a camaraderie because of the way we approach cuisine from the heart, despite the fact that he's pork and I'm cabbage.
· Portland Pizza Maestro's Firing Panics Fans [PPH]
· Portland Baker and Author Lanzalotta Lives by His Own 'Code' [Globe]
· All Coverage of Stephen Lanzalotta [~EMAINE~]

Slab

25 Preble St, Portland, ME, 04101