What to do with Imperial's awkward little sidepiece the Portland Penny Diner? Since it opened in 2012, Hotel Lucia's corner eatery struggled with a bit of an identity crisis—bouncing from serving grab-and-go breakfasts to comfort grub and fry bread tacos in a ho-hum space that didn’t invite lounging. The quality dishes, prepared by chef Vitaly Paley’s well-trained kitchen, were rarely the problem—especially on nights the space hosted Paley’s own stellar Russian pop-up DaNet —but poor Penny, as a concept, just never came into focus.
About a month ago, Paley and company found the spot's true calling with the aid of third generation pizzaiolo Vinny Manna, a tight list of messy-wonderful New York-ish-style pies groaning with quality toppings, and some seriously fun cocktails.
The Crown, as it's been rechristened, is a proper bar now—open lunch to late night, dimly lit with the music cranked up, and sporting wildly patterned olive- and orange- wallpaper that hides a Where’s Waldo of Portland landmarks among its bucolic sketches of veggies and pigs. Along with Ken Forkish’s Trifecta Annex over at Pine Street Market, it’s already one of the best spots to grab an East Coast slice or whole pie downtown—and hosts the best daily slice and salad deal ($8), bar none.
Kick off your relationship with a (very generous) slice of the Meat Combo ($6), a megaton blast of mozzarella and melty fontina, ruffled pepperoni and hunky sausage, over zesty sauce and pillowy dough, crisped up fast in the Crown’s 700-degree hybrid brick hearth/electric oven. Blistered and brawny, roiling with ribbons of onion and roasted peppers, bright with Niçoise and Castelvetrano olives and even a surprise caper or two, each bite ends with an elastic snap of cheese and fingers dusky with flavorful soot.
The house’s take on New York pizza sometimes boasts a thicker crust than traditional East Coasters, depending on who is in the kitchen, but what it can lack in flop it makes up for in deliciously crisp edges, soft chew, and a mellow tang. Manna, much of whose family hails from a town about an hour or so outside of Naples, Italy, credits that flavor to his grandma’s 110-year-old sourdough starter, which now lives in Imperial’s basement. “All 12 uncles and aunts—and their kids—have some of her starter too,” he says. “It makes nice, tender dough.”
The menu sticks to eight pies—basic cheese wild with Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino Romano to a heady mushroom-béchamel sauced pie carpeted with a forest of criminis—plus four slices and a handful of salads and snacks, overseen by Imperial’s Matthew Jarrell and Manna. There’s a tame, solid Caesar, with nicely chopped romaine and big, crunchy croutons, and a white bean and tender confit tuna salad begging for a splash or six of vinegar. Better are the drinks, like the summery Watermelon Paloma, which adds fresh melon juice to the usual grapefruit-tequila number and thrums with cilantro and Szechuan vanilla.
But really, it’s all about the pizza, the proud product of months of pepperoni- and Sicilian oregano-scented R&D on the part of the whole staff; a collective quest for a not-so-simple, satisfying pie. “I told him, ‘Vinny! We want the grease to run down your arm when you fold the slice. That’s when we’ll know we’ve got it,’” remembers Paley. “Now?! Now we’ve got it.”