I was out to dinner with friends the other night when one of them asked, “Want to split a pizza?” This is not a question I say no to very often. But when she suggested scallops as a topping, I thought to myself, “Scallops on a pizza? You can’t be serious?” I imagined big dollops of chewy white shellfish plopped onto a landscape of cheese and sauce. And I couldn’t imagine what could possibly go with scallops on pizza until another friend said, “How about bacon?”
If you’re a fan of scallops wrapped in bacon as an appetizer, you won’t be surprised to hear that this turned out to be a good combination. Yummy even. The scallops were cut into tiny, tender pieces and no more noticeable than a mushroom or an onion amid all the creamy cheese. The bacon was crispy and a nice, flavorful touch.
When I was growing up, pizza toppings were limited to pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, onions, green peppers, and my favorite, anchovies. The mushrooms were canned, the pepperoni was fatty and greasy, and the sausages were perfectly round slices. But there’s a brave new world out there filled with fresh, ingenious pizza toppings that no one who grew up on pepperoni could have imagined 20 years ago. And many pizza joints are not joints anymore – they’re gourmet restaurants going to great lengths to top each other in the toppings department.
Bonobo Pizza in Portland is just one of many gourmet pizza parlors in the area creating riffs on the traditional pizza theme. Denise Compton and her business partner, Louise Murphy, will celebrate the restaurant’s second anniversary in March. Former English teachers, they bought Bonobo (named after the species of ape that is closest to humans in terms of its social behavior) as a going concern and have continued to experiment with its menu. It is one of three women-owned, eclectic, foodie havens on Pine Street in the West End.
Some of Bonobo’s more unusual offerings include the “Smokey,” a white pizza covered with smokey roasted winter squash, roasted onions, leeks, gorgonzola and parmesan cheese; and the “Gruyere,” another white pizza covered with bits of potato, prosciutto ham, spinach, leeks, gruyere and parmesan on a base of roasted garlic butter. “The Marley” features jerk chicken sausage and hot peppers; the “Baby Arugula” features almond pesto, goat cheese, and a real miniature salad of arugula leaves in olive oil in the middle, and the “Ocean” has white clam sauce with garlic and scallions.
Compton says her goal isn’t so much to invent the most unusual pizzas as it is to make the family dining experience a healthy one. Bonobo uses fresh, local ingredients whenever possible. Their pepperoni and sausage have no nitrates, and most of the vegetables are freshly roasted in the brick, wood-fired oven. For the “Smokey,” trays of fresh butternut squash cook for hours until tender along with the carmelized onions used on several pizzas.
Bette York of Freeport has been to Bonobo’s three or four times and loves the baby arugula pizza. She grew up on pepperoni, mushrooms, and onion pizza, but she’s come to enjoy the idea of healthy greens and different kinds of cheese on her pizza.
“Who would have thought of putting arugula on a pizza,” she said on a recent weekend visit. “Who would have thought of using goat cheese?”
Bette’s daughter Melissa, who was visiting from Boston, says the search for ever-more-creative pizza toppings makes sense as people look for variety in their dining experiences.
“It’s a classic comfort food,” she says. “Making it a little gourmet but still accessible has become the trend.”
Ironically, Compton says the most popular of their pizzas day to day are actually the most traditional ones: pepperoni and cheese. She attributes that to the number of families who have become regulars, and also to the take-out business, which accounts for 25 percent of their sales. Next on the list are the “Farm,” which features pork sausage and roasted onions, and the “Goat,” which has sun-dried tomatoes, roasted red peppers, and spinach along with the goat cheese.
On the night I visited, I saw a Baby Arugula, a pepperoni, and a couple of Greeks come out of the oven. I sampled the “Morocco,” with spiced lamb sausage, roasted red peppers and scallions with goat cheese and feta, as well as a “Smokey.” The cheese was a little thick on the “Morocco,” but the chunky slices of lamb were perfect. The chunks of winter squash on the “Smokey” were tender and sweet and didn’t seem at odds with the onions and gorgonzola cheese.
Compton hails from southern New Jersey, where she grew up around farms and fresh foods. She waitressed and cooked her way through college and has written many freelance articles about food, cookbooks, restaurants, and food-related topics. She says experimenting is part of the fun of owning the restaurant – just as trying new combinations is fun for her regular customers. They give her feedback as to which pizza specials are working and which are not.
“People come to Bonobo for flavor and innovative pizzas,” Compton says. “Portland is a foodie town. There are many sophisticated diners who want interesting, local, fresh foods put together in artistic ways. “
A Greek pizza loaded with basil, fresh from the wood-fired oven at Bonobo Pizza in Portland.
Denise Compton is co-owner of Bonobo Pizza with business partner Louise Murphy. Both former English teachers bought the restaurant as a going concern and have continued to experiment with its menu. ?