By Charlie Pogacar

Chris Daniels, owner and operator of Peng’s Pizza Pies in Biddeford, Maine, makes a signature pie that will blow your mind. The gradual process of creating it neatly mirrors Daniels’ journey as a pizza maker: it’s been a steady, deliberate process.

First, the pizza. It appears on the menu at Peng’s as the Pistachio & Pickled Fresno pie. He first created it when he was doing weekly pop-ups at Belleville Bakery in Portland, Maine. The ingredients started off “really basic,” in his own words: cream sauce, mozzarella, pickled Fresno peppers, pistachios and Parmesan cheese.

“It was missing some balance,” Daniels said. “So I added herbed cream sauce. It has a little bit of lemon juice, lemon zest, garlic and a whole bunch of herbs. I also added a garlicky, sweet spicy honey as a finisher—that made it really special.”

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A Pistachio and Pickled Fresno Pizza with New Haven-like charred crust.

Peng’s Pizza Pies

The pie, which was recently spotlighted by the Portland Press Herald, isn’t Peng’s bestseller—that would be the Pepperoni pizza, of course. But the pie has been in heavy demand since appearing in the newspaper. Peng’s is regularly selling out of its Pistachio & Pickled Fresno pie.

“Definitely since that article, the pizza has gone kind of gangbusters,” Daniels said. “Keeping up with that has been fun.”

Peng’s Pizza Pies is the culmination of about 15 years of making pizza and baking bread. Daniels grew up in Windham, Maine, just north of Portland, and worked at Pat’s Pizza, a local shop, when he was in high school. By the time he was 21, Daniels got the baking bug. He landed a job in a Whole Foods bakery and became immersed in a sourdough artisan bread program there.

“The person who trained me was from Queens and they were really into pizza,” Daniels said. “We’d talk shop about pizza all the time and I’d actually go to his place in Portland and we’d make pizza together. I guess I kind of fell in love with pizza all over again there.”

From there, Daniels moved to the “other” Portland: Portland, Oregon. There he spent time working at a pizzeria called Oven and Shaker, which focused on wood-fired pizza. His pizza chops continued to expand within a new, Neapolitan-like format. Learning a new style of pizza only furthered a philosophy of his, one that would ultimately lead to the unique menu at Peng’s Pizza Pies.

“To me, pizza has always been a creative way to have dough be a vessel for cool toppings,” Daniels said.

Around 2013, Daniels moved back home to Maine and took a job at Tandem Coffee and Bakery, where his baking skills continued to proliferate. He learned under Briana Holt, a James Beard-nominated baker. “She’s always one to play around with sweet-savory flavor combinations and I’ve always loved that,” Daniels said.

When Daniels saw that Belleville—a bakery across town from Tandem—was advertising for someone to start an evening pizza program, he immediately messaged the co-owner, Chris Deutsch, and was “pretty much hired on the spot,” Daniels said. “We hit it off immediately.”

Not only was the relationship a hit—so, too, were the pizzas Daniels was making. The bakery would routinely sell out of about 50 pizzas, with those who wanted pies waiting in line to get their hands on one. This was also the site where the Pistachio & Pickled Fresno pizza first appeared and started catching the eye of the inhabitants of the small New England city’s illustrious foodie scene.

From the beginning, Daniels’ pizza was style agnostic. He borrowed things he learned from the Neapolitan-esque, wood-fired pizza at Oven and Shaker. He especially liked the leoparding on a Neapolitan crust and sought to replicate that. He was also “obsessed” with New Haven-style pizza, especially Sally’s Apizza, and how they “push it so hard in the oven.” Finally, he liked the thin, crunchy structure of a New York-style pizza.

A pizza maker uses a pizza cutter to cut into a pepperoni pie.

Peng’s Pizza Pies

Whatever style his pizza truly was, people inside of Portland were noticing it. It became so popular, in fact, people outside of Portland were aware of it as well. Daniels was asked to do a pop-up in Biddeford, a small former mill city about an hour south of Portland. The pop-up was so successful it became a routine thing, and it also made Daniels wonder. If he were going to launch a brick and mortar location, would Biddeford be a good place to start?

There were more hurdles that awaited him. The pandemic happened. One of the first locations he looked at in Biddeford wasn’t up to code. And, finally, his beloved father, Bill, unexpectedly passed away in 2020.

“I had to deal with all of the things that come with that,” Daniels said of his father passing. “And then, through all of that, my wife and I were trying to decide if we wanted to still open a brick and mortar. All of that slowly built into this,” Daniels said of the storefront he proudly opened in August 2023. It’s named after his father, a short, stout man who was said to have the distinct gait of a penguin. It was a fitting way to pay tribute to the man who raised him.

The menu at Peng’s Pizza Pies is delightfully simple. It fits on a single piece of paper. There are three white pies and three red pies, one salad and a cheesecake, baked in house. As noted on the menu, vegan cheese is available as a substitute on any pie.

The simplified menu serves a couple of purposes. For one thing, Daniels has a small team of just a few people helping him out. The shop is open from 4 to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. It also helps him keep food costs low while focusing on making the best quality pizza he can.

“I want to continue to produce the highest quality pizza that we can make,” Daniels said. “And sell it at a volume where we’re not selling out all the time. I want to create a higher threshold for that. But we’re also kind of restricted by the building we’re in. We have a small space, it’s 670 square feet and the kitchen takes up a lot of that. There are just eight seats.”

In other words, if Peng’s Pizza Pies expands, it will likely first be a move to a different, larger location. But, it’s also just been six months. Daniels wants to keep perfecting the processes that have gotten him here, the ones he learned along the way in his long, decorated career as a baker and pizza maker. Just like he has tweaked the recipe to his Pistachio and Pickled Fresno Pie, he anticipates his life as a pizza maker will continue to evolve in distinct and deliberate ways.

“I always wanted a small operation and I wanted to be here, in Biddeford,” Daniels said. “I think having a small staff allows you to be a cohesive team where you’re sharing and learning together. I still want that, even as we continue to grow.”

Marketing, Pizzerias