Seth Levy's picture

A Slab of Sicilian In Maine

Slab Sicilian Street Food -- Portland, Maine
Danielle Doucette displays the specialty of Slab Sicilian Street Food. (Photo by Seth Levy)

Simon and Garfunkel, wine and cheese – of all the great pairings in the history of the universe, none are as effortless as beer and pizza.

With soaring ceilings, 20 unique beers on tap, and a scandalously delicious dough recipe, Slab Sicilian Street Food is a temple dedicated to the enjoyment of this quintessential pairing. Co-Owner and General Manager Emily Kingsbury reigns as high priestess here, delivering sacramental 1-pound slabs of pizza and satisfying the demands of Portland, Maine's young, thirsty beer scene with an impressive, constantly rotating tap list.

Full disclosure: Since Slab opened last June (literally stumbling distance from my door), I've been a regular. As a customer, it's enough for me to appreciate the good beer and short trip home. As a writer, I'm driven to understand how the variables – the personality of the owners, the tap list, the food – interact to create an atmosphere so uniquely conducive to enjoying a beer.

The Woman Behind the Bar

Let's start with Emily – a young, energetic rising star in Portland's beer scene.

After an early start in the service industry slinging ice cream at her grandparent's seaside restaurant, Emily's interest in beer grew during a short stint at a sports bar in college. After some tentative experimentations with stouts curiosity blossomed into full-blown passion upon her return to Maine and a chance involvement with a pioneer of Portland's craft beer scene, Eric Michaud of Novare Res Finding herself jobless, Emily was introduced to Eric, and had to pass a rigorous screening prior to signing on. Emily recalls, “Eric asked me the difference between an ale and a lager. I gave him a decent answer and he said, 'Well, I guess you're hired.'”

She describes the chaos of working in startup mode as an important part of her education. “I helped him (Eric) open the place. I helped with everything – painting, applying urethane to the chalice room, waiting tables and bartending. I learned a lot. I had access to some incredible beers there. I had my first sour at Novare and my first lambic, for God's sake – we had Cantillon!”

Paddy's Pizza WedgeAfter a period of growth and career transition, local restaurateur Jason Loring approached Emily to open Slab based on her reputation and palate. “The beer program here at Slab is all me,” says Kingsbury. “Developing a great beer program here was part of the conversation from the very beginning.”

Of course, the ownership mindset is a different, and sometimes daunting, proposition. I asked Emily if she had any misgivings about choosing such an all-consuming profession, and her answer was immediate: “I realized that this project will tie together my career and my enjoyment. I'm good at this, and I like doing it!”

In a culture filled with plenty of balding, bearded, bespectacled beer geeks, Emily stands out – not just because she's a vibrant young lady – but because she's got none of the snifter-lingering pretension that characterizes many beer scenesters. Several times during our interview Emily laughingly pulled me down to earth, “Dude. Relax. It's just beer and pizza!”

The Beer

Emily's lack of pretension belies her discerning palate and well-developed beer selection philosophy. her first priority is diversity: “I have 20 lines here, and I try to keep them each stylistically distinct. If I'm out at a bar that only has two lines, and both of them are hoppy IPAs, I'm not happy. We all appreciate difference. Sometimes you want a sharp, hoppy lager. Sometimes you want a creamy stout.” With at least 20 different beers on tap and more in the bottle, Novare's influence on Slab’s diverse tap list is clear, but the actual selection of styles showcases Kingsbury's unique palate.

Emily Kingsbury has built Slab around the taps. Photo by Seth LevyEmily Kingsbury has built Slab around the taps. (Photo by Seth Levy)  

While Novare's menu shows a strong Belgian influence and a preference for more challenging styles like lambics and sours, Slab's assortment is more straightforward – emphasizing American craft brewers and New England brewers in particular. Is this difference due to the unique challenge of matching certain beers with certain pizzas? Again, Emily is adept at deflating my highfalutin musings, “Beer in general goes with pizza. Some of our slabs go with pilsner, some with stout. Plus, we're not a 'fancy' establishment. It's important to me that we have some lower-priced beers on tap, so you can get a pizza and a beer for under $10.”

Slab excels at maintaining a lineup that's simultaneously diverse, interesting and accessible. On Monday, I was swirling and sipping a 15 percent ABV Old School Barleywine by Dogfish Head while doing research for a story and taking notes. On Wednesday, I was drinking a 4.2 percent Marshall Wharf Kolsch while unwinding and shooting the breeze with fellow patrons. Finding a beer program that seamlessly integrates both profound and plebeian styles is a pleasurable rarity – and one that reflects Emily’s singular influence.

The Pizza

Then there’s the pizza. “It's a 1-pound slice, topped with a tomato sauce that's slightly sweeter than average,” says Kingsbury, “but the texture is amazing. I mean, it's a big piece of pizza, but it's surprisingly light and airy. It's like nothing else.”

After extensive personal experimentation, I can testify that Kingsbury is entirely correct. Slab’s slabs are light, airy and flavorful. If I’m in a vegan mood, I can enjoy one of their slabs with a lovely, coarsely ground hummus redolent of sage and orange oil. The Spicy Meat Wedge is truth in gustatory advertising personified, piled with both pepperoni, pepperoncini, and a profusion of cheeses.

The inimitable dough, created by iconoclastic Maine baker Steven Lanzalotta, is so special that it not only catalyzed the creation of Slab, but was the subject of a dispute with Mr. Lanzalotta's former employer.

During the fall of 2013, Mr. Lanzalotta's aggrieved departure from his former place of employment – complete with a public dispute over who owned the intellectual property rights of his recipes – briefly enlivened Portland’s foodie community, and stoked fevered anticipation of the opening of Slab. This controversy has since subsided; evidence, perhaps, that even the most serious disputes can't survive the judicious application of beer and pizza.

The Conclusion

After talking through the afternoon (and consuming a lot of beer and pizza), Kingsbury prepared to return to work, and I to my writing. But what have I missed? What's the magic ingredient that ties Emily, the beer, and the pizza together? Emily has an answer at the ready, of course.

“It's the community around this place. We support our local beer community, and they support us. It's an exciting time to be in the beer industry in Maine, and we can all feel it: The employees, the customers, the owners. We have access to so much here – we've got Farmhouse beers, German style wheat beers – everything. Everyone is trying something different, yet everyone supports each other.”

The practical implication of Emily's support of, and engagement with, her local beer community is access to rare and unique styles that aren't available anywhere else and the valuable and challenging endeavor of maintaining an ambitious beer program.

Perhaps the more important manifestation of this community is harder to quantify. It's a feeling I get when seated here with a pint of something local and a slab of steaming dough that I'm part of something bigger. At Slab, there's a guy in a suit, a young couple on a date and an older dude covered in sawdust. Over dough and suds, groups of disparate individuals are drawn together in appreciation of the holy union of beer, pizza and companionship.