By Rachel Forrest

Hampton Union, Friday, May 11, 2012

[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]

There is indeed a real sense of community at The Community Oven. Owner Shane Pine is sourcing locally and getting involved in the community as much as possible.

In addition, the staff is welcoming and enthusiastic about their work and the food they serve, which is tasty indeed, especially the wood-fired oven pizza, reminiscent of pizza from Flatbreads but with more variety. (Also cut into wedges, not rectangles).

I dined at both the bar and in the dining room and both were pleasant, community-charged experiences where strangers take time to talk and get to know each other.

Sit in the vast dining room (which feels a bit Spartan but gets warmed up by the pleasant staff) and watch the pies being pulled out of the stone oven, or in the bar area, which draws a crowd of locals even mid-week. Soon they will have outdoor dining too.

There are a few appetizers and salads to start what will likely be a pizza experience. Skewers of meat and veggies are a good option for sharing. Mix and match chicken, beef and veggies. The kabobs have their own sauces and the beef with a layer of creamy horseradish sauce was excellent, as was my veggie kabob with peppers, tomatoes and artichoke hearts with a sweet balsamic reduction ($7.50 for the pair). Also on skewers are bites of grape tomatoes and mozzarella with fresh basil, but better is a rich artichoke and spinach dip with plenty of pita chips.

Get an order of Cajun spiced wings — a big pile for just $9, grilled with a nice smoky flavor or go on to a salad like the organic baby spinach with strawberries (not in season here but still sweet), candied pecans, blue cheese and a house-made sweet onion poppy seed dressing. Before pizza, I’ll pause to let you know they have an inexpensive wine list with some good selections, a full bar and 16 taps with some local brews from breweries like Throwback in North Hampton, Smuttynose, Peak Organic and Redhook. They even have a Harpoon hard cider, which is refreshing. So, while there’s nothing earth-shatteringly exotic, they do honor our local breweries. They’re awaiting the opening of Blue Lobster Brewery next door to add to the list.

The pizza here is terrific. The red sauce is made from fire-roasted tomatoes and the effect is evident in a lightly sweet and earthy sauce with a touch of spark. Most of the ingredients are natural or organic and the veggies are crisp and fresh. I tried a number of pizzas including the All Organic, the pepperoni and the taco. They come in small and large and a large will feed about three people. I managed to eat an entire small sausage pizza but half at the restaurant and half immediately when I got home. The pizzas range up to $18.

I enjoyed the All Organic. The margherita pizza is made with fresh mozzarella and sliced ripe Roma tomatoes with fresh basil, garlic and a smattering of Italian seasonings. It comes out with a wonderfully crisp crust, although my basil was a tad burnt. The pepperoni was also good, the meat thicker than usual with a nice texture and tossed with thin green peppers, mushrooms and the fire-roasted tomato sauce with a cheese blend that has a little snap to it. All of the crusts here are thin and the edges come out nice and crisp.

Normally I wouldn’t try a taco pizza but our waitress raved about it. The pie is layered with ground beef, a spicy taco seasoning made in house, red onion, lettuce, diced garlic and tomatoes with a squeeze of lime and a sprinkling of fresh cilantro along with a sharp cheddar and jack cheese. I was pleasantly surprised at the balance of ingredients.

And yes, they have gluten-free pizza! Other varieties include all veggie, barbecue chicken and then create your own.

Desserts are quite substantial. They have a huge chocolate cupcake with chocolate sauce or my favorite, a big baked banana with ice cream and chocolate sauce. I saw folks diving into a fun marshmallow roast — you do it at your table with a bunch of different marshmallow flavors. Kids love it.

There’s a very happy vibe here and that’s a draw right along with the pizza. They might want to expand the appetizer list a bit but for now as they grow into restauranthood, there’s enough to enjoy and enjoy you will.

Rachel Forrest is a former restaurant owner who lives in Portsmouth. Her column appears Thursdays in Go&Do. Her restaurant review column, Dining Out, appears Thursdays in Spotlight magazine. Buy “Maine Classics: More Than 150 Delicious Recipes from Downeast,” written by Chefs Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier with Rachel Forrest at www.rachelforrest.com.

The Community Oven
845 Lafayette Road, Hampton, 601-6311, www.thecommunityoven.com
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily
Food *** and a half. Terrific pizza and a smattering of tasty apps.
Service ****. Upbeat and congenial.
Ambiance. *** A little “chilly” but great for families and friends.
Overall . *** and half. Welcoming pizza spot where community is king.
***** – Excellent