What to do with Imperial’s awkward little side piece, the Portland Penny Diner? Hotel Lucia’s corner eatery has struggled with an identity crisis for years—from serving grab-and-go breakfast to fry-bread sandwiches in a ho-hum space. But this summer owner Vitaly Paley and company finally found the spot’s true calling with the aid of third-generation pizzaiolo Vinny Manna, a tight list of messy-wonderful New York–style pies groaning with quality toppings, and seriously fun cocktails.
The Crown, as its been rechristened, is a proper bar now—open lunch to late night, dimly lit, and sporting wildly patterned wallpaper that hides a Where’s Waldo of Portland landmarks. It’s already one of the best spots to grab an East Coast slice or whole pizza downtown.
Kick off with a (very generous) slice of the Meat Combo ($6), a megaton blast of elastic mozzarella and melty fontina, pepperoni, and hunky sausage fired in the Crown’s 700-degree brick hearth oven. It’s blistered and brawny, roiling with ribbons of onion and roasted peppers, bright with Niçoise and Castelvetrano olives and a surprise caper or two.
The house’s take on New York pizza can boast a thicker crust than traditional East Coasters, but what it lacks in flop it makes up for in deliciously crisp edges and a mellow tang. Manna, whose family hails from a town outside of Naples, Italy, credits that flavor to his grandma’s 110-year-old sourdough starter, which now lives in Imperial’s basement.
The menu sticks to eight pies—including a heady mushroom, béchamel-sauced pie carpeted with a forest of criminis—plus daily slices, salads, and snacks. There’s a tame Caesar with big, crunchy croutons and a bland white bean–and–confit tuna salad begging for a splash of vinegar. Better are the well-calibrated drinks, like a Watermelon Paloma that 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 weeks of pepperoni- and Sicilian-oregano-scented R&D on the part of the whole staff. “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.”