Hard Telling Not Knowing each week tries to answer your burning questions about why things are the way they are in Maine — specifically about Maine culture and history, both long ago and recent, large and small, important and silly. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week’s question comes to us from me, Emily Burnham, a lifelong Mainer and person with very strong opinions about pizza.
How did Pat’s Pizza end up creating its own unique pizza style?
Last week I watched a YouTube video detailing some of the many and varied regional pizza styles across the country. Everybody knows New York-style pizza. Detroit-style pizza recently made its way to Bangor, and people still debate if Chicago deep dish is really a pizza or more of a casserole.
But some of the more super specific pizza styles listed certainly raised my eyebrows. Ohio Valley pizza, for example, centered around the eastern Ohio town of Steubenville, is a square pizza with thick dough with a lot of tomato sauce, which is finished with cold cheese and toppings. Altoona-style pizza, originally created by the Altoona Hotel in the Pennsylvania town, adds salami, green pepper and American or Velveeta cheese as toppings on a fluffy crust — odd, but fine. You do you, Altoona.
After going through all these different pizza varieties across the U.S., however, one thing became clear to me: Pat’s Pizza, the beloved Maine chain with 16 locations ranging from the original Orono eatery to the one in downtown Portland, is one of those regional pizza styles and should be recognized as such.
We already know that you, Bangor Daily News readers, love Pat’s, since you voted it number one in the greater Bangor area in our pizza bracket competition last year. But the rest of the country should know that Maine is home to its own unique pizza style, with its own unique history.
Pat’s was not the first restaurant in the Bangor area to offer pizza. That honor goes to either Lou’s Guest, a restaurant on Main Street in Winterport; the Baltimore , the original Baldacci family restaurant in Bangor; or Pizza House, also in Orono. It’s unclear which of those three was actually the very first to serve pizza, but according to BDN archives they all had it on the menu between 1949 and 1951.
Pat’s didn’t serve pizza at first. It was founded in Orono in 1931 as Farnsworth’s Cafe, by C.D. “Pat” Farnsworth, selling hot dogs, hamburgers and ice cream for its first 20 years. In 1953, seeing the success of the new-fangled “pizza pie” in the aforementioned restaurants, Farnsworth and his wife, Fran, began developing their own pizza recipe.
Fran made the smooth tomato sauce, adding just a hint of sweetness. And Pat created the dough — chewy and sweet, with a buttery mouthfeel unlike any other pizza crust I’ve ever had. I firmly believe that it’s the crust that makes Pat’s unique. It’s the crust that defines a good pizza anyway, and who else has a crust like Pat’s? Find me one and I’ll buy you a pizza.
Anyway, the pizza was pretty much an instant hit with customers, and not long after that, Farnsworth changed the name of his business to Pat’s Pizza. The rest is history, as over the next nearly seven decades it would grow to become one of the largest Maine-based restaurant chains, a favorite of customers from Sanford to Presque Isle. And the original Orono location is still very much there, with no stint at the University of Maine complete without at least one, if not many, visits.
You could argue that pizza should be made by people of Italian descent, which the Farnsworths are not. But then again, Cuban-style pizza, popular around Miami, Florida, was created by Cuban immigrants. California-style pizza was popularized by Austrian-American chef Wolfgang Puck. And furthermore, Altoona-style pizza puts Velveeta cheese on top. Velveeta! It doesn’t sound appealing to me personally, but who am I to judge the fine folks of Altoona?
Short of purists who exist in a fantasyland where pizza can only be one thing, I believe all the pizzas of the world can get along in peace and harmony. From people who like pineapple as a topping, to New York slices wolfed down on the street, to a buttery, cheesy slice of Pat’s Pizza, with extra pepperoni and washed down with a cold beer. If Altoona can have their own nationally recognized style, so can we.