SEARSPORT, Maine — A heavy blanket of chill white fog shrouded the Maine coast Friday morning, but it was aromatic and warm inside the green, white and red converted school bus in Searsport as Tucker Crothers pulled perfectly cooked pizzas out of the woodfired oven.
Crothers and his partner, Judi Bisceglia, are the owners of Za’spresso , “The Little Italy Bus,” parked next to their home on U.S. Route 1. The bus, located in their driveway, is open from mid-March to mid-December. During those months, Crothers turns the dough that Bisceglia makes from an old, closely guarded family recipe into pizzas and strombolis.
It’s a family business, and a shared passion.
For Crothers, 35, who has a background in food service, his venture into pizza-making began after they took a trip to Italy.
“I fell in love with the pizza,” Crothers said. “I had it on the street in Napoli. It was awesome. I wanted to recreate it.”
When he came home, he started buying books about pizza making and began learning the history, recipes and techniques. Then he found a school bus for sale in Colorado, where he lived, and began renovating it to transform it into what would become Za’spresso — named for the pizza and espresso he sells there.
In 2018, they opened for business, parking the bus in Lakewood, Colorado. Then, the following year they decided to move to the east coast to be closer to family. They settled in Searsport, where he worked as a bartender at a Belfast restaurant until he was laid off at the very beginning of the pandemic.
So they pivoted. Last April, two big things happened for the family — they had a baby, and they opened the doors of the Little Italy bus.
“It was a little hairy at first, trying to get things situated with masks and everything,” Crothers said. “We had a lot of help from the community.”
But they figured it out. Customers began finding them, some through word of mouth and Facebook advertising, some just because the brightly painted bus caught their eye.
“I’m big on having everything right,” Crothers said. “People come here for quality. They come here for the freshness.”
That’s something the couple doesn’t take lightly. Last summer, they grew their own San Marzano tomatoes — 36 plants worth — to make their sauce, which they preserved in jars to use later in the season. And because the rich, volcanic soil in the Naples area grows some of the world’s best tomatoes, they ordered volcanic minerals azomite and dolomite online to add to the soil in their garden.
“The tomatoes were amazing, and they were massive,” Crothers said.
They also grew their own basil, an important component of the pizza sauce and an ingredient in their pizzas. Every week, they make sauce, adding other ingredients such as anchovy sauce, red wine vinegar, oregano and salt to the San Marzano tomatoes. In addition to the ones they grew, they buy some in cans as well.
“It’s pretty good stuff that goes in it and it comes out tasting really nice,” Crothers said.
Another element that requires attention to detail is the pizza oven. In it, they use hardwood, which burns hot and clean. Crothers is excited that right now, they have a stash of well-seasoned applewood from a nearby farm. It takes a few armfuls of wood a day to keep the fire stoked, he said.
After just a few minutes in the oven, which heats up to anywhere between 600 and 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, the thin-crust pizzas are done.
Crothers said his favorite pie is the Napolitano, which features a spicy fra diavolo sauce and a cheese blend topped with crispy prosciutto. Once it’s out of the oven, he adds fresh arugula and drizzles it with a balsamic glaze.
Other menu options include Queen pizza, made with olive oil, discs of fresh mozzarella, fresh basil and grape tomatoes and “Ole Man Pie,” made with a cheddar and mozzarella cheese blend, pepperoni, mushrooms and black olives.
There are specials and desserts, too, including wood-fired dough with maple frosting — a nod to the bus’s new home in New England.
So far, Searsport has been a good landing spot for both Za’spresso and the family.
“We miss Colorado, but we love Maine,” Crothers said. “I enjoy pizza, and I enjoy the fact that I get to be home where my partner and daughter are all the time.”
Za’spresso, “The Little Italy Bus,” is located at 307 East Main St. in Searsport. It’s open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 11 a.m.-5 p.m. on Sunday and its number is 207-548-4072. It’s cash only for the moment, and will be closed from Thursday, April 1 to Sunday, April 4.