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Passion for Pizza
Community and Food Come Together at Finelli’s in Ellsworth

By Jonathan Levitt

Courtesy of The Ellsworth American

November 18 2004

ELLSWORTH — “Gourmet pizza is an oxymoron,” said Paul Schneider, owner and pizza chef at Finelli New York Style Pizzeria. “Pizza is vernacular food, street food. It’s bread, cheese and sauce. You hold it in your hand and you eat it.”

Paul Schneider is the owner and chef at Finelli’s.

After 12 hectic years in the city, Paul and Linda Schneider sold their popular pizzeria in Providence, R.I., and moved to Bar Harbor.

“I’d always loved Maine,” said Paul. “I loved the peace of it, the sparse population, the low crime rate, the casual outdoor lifestyle.”

As it turns out, Bar Harbor was a little bit too peaceful. After two slow years, the Schneiders realized there wasn’t enough year-round business on the island.

“We almost left Maine,” said Linda, “but we really liked it up here. It was so peaceful, we didn’t want to just pack up and go home.”

In June 2003, the Schneiders moved their business to Ellsworth. “We thought: ‘This place is exactly what we’re looking for,’” said Paul.

“Ellsworth is busy all the time. We have good parking, a location right in the middle of everything … in Ellsworth, we knew we could live up to our mission statement: to serve fine food fast.”

A year and a half later, the Schneiders, along with manager and right-hand man Alex Knight, have found their rhythm.

Customers line up for lunch at Finelli’s in Ellsworth.

It’s lunchtime in early November and the line for pizza is winding around the restaurant. “It’s like working at a mill today,” said Paul. “We’re crankin’ them out.”

For the next eight hours, a steady stream of customers will file through the doors to order thin crust pizza and sandwiches on the Schneiders’ homemade bread.

The pies range from the standard sauce and cheese to what the Schneiders calls their “specialty pies.”

There’s the Satyricon, a tomato sauce pie with Italian sausage, ricotta, fresh basil and fresh tomatoes.

The Greek is a white pie with baby spinach, feta cheese, fresh tomatoes and Kalamata olives.

As a special, Paul makes a clam pie with chopped local clams with garlic, fresh parsley and cheese.

“I aim to make pizza as good as the legendary places,” said Paul. “We should have pizza in Ellsworth as good as Pepe’s in New Haven, John’s in Greenwich Village or Tacconelli’s in Philadelphia.”

According to the Schneiders, good pizza begins with good crust.

Paul Schneider shows off a Greek Pizza.

At Finelli, the dough is mixed, cut and measured for small, medium and large pies, and then allowed to proof for up to 24 hours to develop flavor.

“The dough should have flavor just like everything else,” said Paul. “It shouldn’t just be like eating a cardboard box with cheese and sauce on it.”

When an order comes in, the balls of dough are pulled out of the proofing rack, coated in flour and then pressed down to get the air out.

All pizzas are made to order, stretched and thrown by hand.

“Our dough never sees a rolling pin,” said Paul.

Before the pizza gets any toppings, cornmeal is sprinkled on the wooden peel to give the dough some wheels and allow it to slide easily into the oven.

Finelli is one of the few pizza places that lay the cheese on the dough before the sauce. According to Paul, this gives the dough time to set up in the oven before the sauce seeps in and makes everything soggy.

Paul Schneider is especially particular about toppings.

“When you put stuff on a pizza, it matters where you put it,” he said.

On a pie with sausage and mushrooms, Schneider lays the mushrooms under the sausage so the juicy meat can flavor the mushrooms as the pizza cooks. On a pizza bianco, the spinach goes down first and is protected and slowly cooked by the layer of cheese that covers it.

“With toppings people generally think more is better,” said Paul.

“It’s not about more. It’s about the right proportions. You don’t want pizza to be heavy, you don’t want pizza to be sloppy, and you don’t want it to be wet from too many toppings. The flavors should be balanced, you really shouldn’t taste just cheese or just sauce.”

To ensure a crisp and flavorful crust, the oven at Finelli is lined with heavy bricks and set at 550 degrees.

“Nothing happens until the bricks are really hot,” said Paul. “The heat comes up from the bottom of the oven, through those bricks and sucks the moisture right out of the dough. The crust ends up light and crispy because all the waters gone.”

The Schneiders would like to see Finelli Pizzeria as an “Ellsworth institution.”

“We’d like to build a loyal customer base and stay here a long time,” they said. “We know it doesn’t happen overnight, but we’re patient, we’ll build this place over time.”

For now, the Schneiders work six days a week putting everything they have into making the best pizza possible.

“This isn’t just a job,” said Paul.

“We feed people here. It’s not like a hardware store. It’s not like here you go, here’s you’re pound of nails, now see ya later. Here, we’re giving people food, something to keep them going. Hopefully, they’ll keep coming back for that.”

Down the road, the Schneiders would like to serve beer and wine and create a place for people to spend some time and really enjoy their food.

“Someday I’d even like to have a country taverna,” said Paul. “A rustic place somewhere outside town, just a little joint someplace like Franklin.”

“We’d have a rotisserie and a wood fired grill, wood-burning pizza ovens, skeet shooting, bocci ball. It would be a destination, a place to bring the kids on a Sunday and eat pizza, drink wine.”

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