By Madeleine Staub
The Portland Pie Company takes pizza very seriously.
The Maine-based company recently opened a pizzeria in the former home of the famed Merrimack Restaurant in downtown Manchester.
“If there is any type of food that tastes good… we can make it on a pizza,” said Chief Operations Officer Joe O’Neil. The Red Claws Pie, made with real lobster meat, and the Bar Harbor, a pie made with scallops, bacon and alfredo sauce, reflects the company’s Portland roots. “A lot of people come in and say they’ve never tried seafood on a pizza but this is delicious,” O’Neil said. The restaurant offers each of its pizzas on four different kinds of dough: basil, beer, garlic and wheat. The beer dough is made with Maine microbrews and adds a dimension of texture to the pizza. Pizzas are also offered in a gluten-free option, which includes vegan cheeses.
Their four doughs are sold at Hannaford grocery stores and can also be purchased at the restaurant. The restaurant will also prepare “take and bake” pizzas for customers that are par baked and topped so customers can bake them at home.
The restaurant offers a variety of salads, sandwiches and freshly prepared soups. The Eagle Ridge, a sandwich with Montreal seasoned steak, mushrooms, peppers, onions and American cheese, is one of the most popular menu items.
There are more than 70 menu items available. A seasonal menu is offered with new items, and the most successful of these are transitioned onto the regular menu. When the company adds items to the menu, less popular ones are edited out — “We have to decide what’s really not holding its own,” O’Neil said. When a pie is retired, it goes to the “Pie Graveyard,” but even some of these pies rise from the dead on occasion due to what O’Neil calls a “cult following.” Cooks are trained to make items that aren’t on the menu anymore if people are still asking for them.
Of the 10 beers available, six are from Maine microbreweries, including four Shipyard beers and Geary’s HSA. The restaurant also features a variety of wines, which the company tries to keep affordable. They use a nitrogen gas wine cooler designed to preserve wines after they have been opened, which allows the restaurant to offer wine by the glass inexpensively. The company offers beer or wine flights, each comprising four small glasses of different varieties of beer or wine. Currently on offer is a pinot noir flight, and the flights will be rotating through white wines as the summer progresses. They owners are working on getting the necessary licenses to serve mead from a Maine company that uses local ingredients.
The Portland Pie Company will deliver west to Saint Anselm College, east to the border of Auburn, south to the airport and north to Southern New Hampshire University.
Owners Nat Getchell and Steve Freese grew up in Maine and were college roommates at Thomas College in Waterville. They both went on to work for Shipyard Beer, but were interested in trying something new.
“They wanted to try something and start something of their own,” O’Neil said. Thirteen years ago they started the first Portland Pie Company in Portland, Maine, because they thought the area was lacking good pizza options. The original Portland location was a pickup and delivery service, which received a positive reception from Portland residents. After about eight years, they decided to begin opening full-service locations in Portland, Scarborough and Westbrook.
“We wanted an opportunity to brand the product face to face,” O’Neil said.
The company’s strategy in Portland was to become popular in the city and then fan out to surrounding towns. They wanted to enter a second market, and “Manchester just seemed to be the best fit,” O’Neil said. If the downtown location is successful, the owners hope to expand to towns around Manchester.
The availability of this particular location also played a key role in their decision to move to Manchester. They were drawn to the Merrimack Restaurant’s history as a community meeting place and a magnet for political figures and reporters during primary season. The Portland Pie Company has already hosted Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, and O’Neil said, “We intend to carry on the tradition as much as the city allows. We’re looking forward to going into the primary season and off-year elections.”
They’ve brought in a few managers and staff members from the Maine locations for the first few months and have hired 50 local residents — “All 50 individuals are absolutely fantastic people,” O’Neil said. General Manager John Flebotte lived and worked in Maine for a few months before the opening so that he could better understand the inner workings and day-to-day operations of a Portland Pie Company location.