Pick your poison

Is Lanzalotta's Slab the city's best outlaw food?
By BRIAN DUFF  |  October 1, 2014


SAY YOUR PRAYERS The flagship pizza at Preble St.’s Slab.

The National Institutes of Health just published a randomized study that confirms the rumors: carbohydrates are poison and should be avoided. So how should we feel about the new temple to carbs launched by their patron saint here in Portland: Stephen Lanzalotta’s Slab Sicilian Streetfood? We should feel good. Christian asceticism was poison for the soul, but should we shun the dazzling cathedral at Chartres?! Carbon emissions poison the planet, but should we skip the campfire to sit in the cold and dark? Of course not. Lanzalotta’s bread transcends any scientific methodology or measurable outcomes. What is science really but the final manifestation of the ascetic ideal, and our fear of the mysterious and unpredictable? It is the NIH that is hostile to life, and Slab offers visceral proof.

It is mysterious what makes Lanzalotta’s bread so good, but the excellence of Slab’s cuisine was predictable. If carbs are poison, Portlanders should feel privileged to be poisoned by this man, who has been the city’s best baker for as long as there has been good food in this town—at Sophia’s, at Micucci, and now at Slab. And despite the ambition of Slab, which dwarfs his previous ventures in size and investment, his informal touch is still evident everywhere. You eat off paper, and even the forks are wood. While the inside is handsomely designed under the lofty wood ceiling of the old public market house, the courtyard beer garden is appealingly utilitarian with its long orange tables distressed by previous use. 

But what is most familiar is the bread, which underlies almost everything on the menu.  In its several manifestations at Slab it mingles the airy quality of an Italian loaf, the crustiness of the best French, and some extra dimension of flavor that is rustic and earthy and wheaty. You can appreciate it on the excellent Sicilian slab—a huge fat-crusted rectangle covered with a candy red sweet/tart sauce and oily pools of melted cheese. 

But the bread seems even better when paired with ingredients that work harder to stand up to it—as in the caponata with its thick layer of near-bitter eggplant in a dark, winey sauce; or in the meatloaf-meatball sandwich, where a crunchier bread encases huge portions of tender beef and pork, mingling with sauce and cheese. One of last week’s specials featured rich pulled pork and soft white cheese between slices of focaccia so delicate and flakey it approached filo. Its accompanying sauce was almost meaty with tomato and pepper.


SLIGHTLY LIGHTER Slab's sauerkraut and pulled pork sandwich.

For something lighter one should look for the chalkboard specials, also tucked away on the drink side of the menu. The slaw is so light and fresh it tends toward salad, with a great kick of anise and fennel. And the sauerkraut is so light and fresh it tends toward slaw, with crunchy red cabbage spotted with tart little caperberries. Fried cauliflower, tender and just bitter, was paired with sharp pepperoncini on a long skewer, and served with a funky white sauce. Drinks feature interesting cocktails, Sicilian wines, and American microbrews, all reasonably priced.  There are two huge desserts, a cone-shaped cannoli and a terrific almond-y girelle. The later can be served with delicious creamy custard.

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