Stephen Lanzalotta, the baker behind Slab pizza, dies at 63

Stephen Lanzalotta in front of the old Portland Public Market Building in 2013 before opening Slab Sicilian Street Food. Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

Stephen Lanzalotta was best known as a baker – particularly as the one behind the Sicilian-style pizza, which gained a following as the bakery manager at Micucci Grocery and became the basis for Portland’s Slab restaurant.

But the people who knew him well describe him as an artist.

Lanzalotta, 63, died on Saturday after years of battling cancer. He was not only a baker, but also Carpenter, oil painter and author as well as father, manager and friend.

“Basically everything he touched turned to gold,” said his daughter Shaia Lanzalotta.

Emily Kingsbury, one of his business partners at Slab, said Lanzalotta is very private and doesn’t want people to know about his health issues. When customers asked for him, Kingsbury said he wasn’t there but would be back soon to make the dough. Though he quit working at the restaurant four years ago, he still occasionally stopped by to make the dough “just because he liked it,” she said.

CAME TO HOMESTEAD IN MAINE

Originally from Waterford, Connecticut, Lanzalotta moved to Maine with his then-wife and three children in 1991 to live near homesteaders and authors Helen and Scott Nearing. There he learned many skills, including woodworking and baking, and opened his first bakery in Blue Hill. Around the year 2000, his family moved to Portland, where he has lived ever since.

Lanzalotta opened Sophia’s, a bakery on Market Street which also housed the Due Gallery – Italian for “two” – which housed the oil paintings of himself and his friend Ian Factor. After it closed, he became the bakery manager at Micucci’s, where his Sicilian platter pizza developed a customer base of its own.

Lanzalotta prepares pizza dough at Micucci’s in 2007. Doug Jones/Staff Photographer

Lanzalotta was fired in 2013 for “exceeding my limits” at the time when he advocated for raises and fuller workweeks for bakery assistants under my management, and recommended changing stores to improve traffic flow. A debate ensued over who could use his famous pizza recipe. This year, he teamed up with a group of Portland restaurateurs to create slab sicilian street food, where his recipes live on.

“Our whole goal here at Slab is to continue his legacy and the food he made, and to continue to do it in his honor,” Kingsbury said.

She remembered the first time she saw Lanzalotta making pizza.

“He was just so excited. He was always so excited to bake and display food for people. And you know, it was really exciting when we first opened up,” she said.

Susan LaVerdiere first met Lanzalotta in Slab’s kitchen the summer it opened, and they soon became friends.

“He taught us the precision and the art of dough preparation, and we spent many, many days learning the recipes,” said LaVerdiere. “He was very detail oriented, very keen to have authenticity for the food and it was a very fascinating learning process in that way.”

When Slab first moved into the former Portland Public Market building, Lanzalotta amazed his colleagues with his intricate handwork, painting and sculpting a wall in the new space. He handled it with the same care and mastery as he did his dough.

AN ARTIST’S touch

“Everything he touched was an art form,” LaVerdiere said.

The chef was full of surprises, she said, recalling watching martial arts.

“He was doing very, very subtle and slow moves, I think maybe they were tai chi moves, and then he would throw a punch or a kick, and I remember kicking the freezer,” LaVerdiere said. “It was so surprising because he was so graceful and gentle. He was a dancer.”

Lanzalotta became a published author in 2006 when he wrote The Diet Code, a weight loss book in which he used mathematical principles to explain his tips and philosophy on healthy eating.

“He’s the only person I’ve ever known who really embodied genius – his mind had so many fascinating depths,” said LaVerdiere. “I’ve never met anyone like him in my entire life.”

As talented as he was at baking, woodworking and painting, his daughter said he was even more remarkable as a person: “the most authentic and sincere person I have ever known,” said Shaia Lanzalotta. “If he could make the world a better place, he would try to do that with everyone he comes in contact with.”


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