ELLSWORTH, Maine – There are about a half-dozen pizza places in the city, but when Paula Tanner comes from Jonesport to shop every two weeks, she only eats the cheese pizza from one — Finelli Pizza & Subs.
It was love at first slice — err, sight — for Tanner.
“It was like, ‘Oh my God, this looks like our kind of pizza place.’ It’s one of those dated, clearly family-owned-type places,” Tanner said. “And we just love this pizza. Why? Because we like New York-style pizza. We’re from Chicago, but Chicago people like that.”
But the 19-year-old Ellsworth pizza place has a challenger. Last summer, former Finelli general manager Harry Luhrs opened DragonFire, and the incumbent has taken notice.
Finelli’s front sign throws a little shade upon Luhrs’ enterprise: “Often Imitated. Never Duplicated,” the marquee reads.
The contretemps is a minor ripple, but it stands out in the generally placid Ellsworth business community, where restaurateurs typically get along and even help each other out.
Luhrs said he and Finelli owner Paul Schneider have not spoken since Luhrs left to start his own joint.
Efforts to contact Schneider were unsuccessful. But Finelli’s current general manager, Derrick Baker, said what might look like a wall of animosity between Finelli and DragonFire is actually something far simpler: They’re competitors.
And Coke just doesn’t talk to Pepsi.
Customers at both restaurants on Monday said they didn’t know about the rivalry. They were too busy eating. Finelli’s take on New York-style pizza features a thin, crisp crust, while DragonFire’s wood-fired pie is thicker and softer.
Josh Kelsey of Hermon said he favors Finelli by far, while Carol Yancey, a Dallas woman visiting Lamoine, likes DragonFire. For Kelsey, the crust makes all the difference.
“When you pick it up, it does not fold over,” the 36-year-old Kelsey said. “It isn’t droopy.”
Yancey likes DragonFire’s pie, with its heavier crust. And she really likes the salads. “They’re really big,” she said.
Tanner said she finds something nostalgic in pizza.
“Every childhood memory is about grabbing a slice of pizza, sitting around and just laughing,” she said.
Growing up, she said, “there used to be a little pizza shop that we could walk to in our neighborhood, and we solved many family woes with cheese pizza. And it was New York-style pizza.”
The dustup between DragonFire and the older shop is an aberrance in an Ellsworth restaurant community that otherwise gets along, said Tim McCarthy, general manager of Pat’s Pizza, Ellsworth’s largest pizza joint.
Restaurant owners in Ellsworth generally support one another, McCarthy said. It’s not at all unusual for him, and the folks over at Helen’s restaurant to call upon one another when one is short of supplies, he said.
McCarthy went so far as to write a positive review of DragonFire on social media when the restaurant opened last year, he said.
The city’s pizza joint owners watch each other’s products to avoid conflict.
Finelli might offer a blueberry pizza, but McCarthy likely would not. The shops tailor their products to their customers’ tastes and have to be very specific. If a pie’s taste changes, say, because it’s winter and the tomatoes are not as fresh as they are in the summer, “our customers can pick it up,” he said.
The specific tastes lead to specific choices. People who like a really thick crust will probably go to Charlie’s Pizza. Angelo’s Pizzeria has a different texture, “like a hand-tossed” pie, McCarthy said. Pat’s sells a medium-crust, Maine-style pizza with a recipe it’s had since 1953.
“We all try to get along, and balance what we offer,” McCarthy said. “The biggest thing is, we want to sell pizza. That’s the important thing.”
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