Vignola has been around a while and opened even before I made my grand return to Maine a decade ago. I had been there since, but that was still long ago – maybe six years and long before I started blogging incessantly about what I was eating. It was time to go back and see what they were up to, especially because there is a bit of a new Italian scene popping up in Portland and I felt it was only right to give an updated look to an originator of it. I didn’t remember the last time I was there as particularly noteworthy, but to be fair, that was hardly relevant after so many years. I preempted this visit by doing my homework and found they have a farm in Greene that grows exclusively for the restaurant, which only added to the excitement of a return.
I arrived a few minutes early for our reservations and waited for Mrs. Portlandeater who had a nearby appointment, but was going to meet me. I was quickly seated where I scoured the menus multiple times, texted some friends, observed the goings-on around me, joked a bit with the table next to me, rearranged the table settings, asked questions about some menu items, listened to the list of rotating local taps, ordered drinks for both of us, and wrote an entire book about the developments in sustainable farming over the last 500 years. Then my wife arrived.
Soon the order of drinks flowed to our tables. I had an Allagash Black, which is one of my favorites from the local brewer. She had a can of Bantam, Rojo cider with sour cherries and pink peppercorns which was pretty good for a cider and tasted exactly how it sounds with the peppercorns as a very minimal addition to the cider’s flavor. We were happily drinking and I was pleased to finally be able to discuss food with my other of significance. I didn’t recall the menu being as extensive, diverse, or interesting last time I was there. I was thoroughly impressed with the deep cheese and charcuterie list which took the entire first half of the menu and also featured some great accoutrements. I was quite interested in ordering something from that area, but my wife wasn’t as keen on the idea, so I evacuated that thought from my brain, noting that those would be given prime ordering consideration on my next visit.
Once we nixed the meats and cheeses, I again tried to see if my wife and I had the inclination to share any food, but we decided sharing wasn’t really caring and picked provisions to only feed ourselves. I looked toward the salads, but saw a couple apps that looked to be more to my liking. After a careful decision process and verifying that the tuna was cooked, I started with the Tonno – Tuna belly stuffed pickled cherry peppers, bread crumbs, raddichio. Then I went with a Pepperoni pizza – House-made beef pepperoni, olives, San Marzano tomato sauce, aged mozzarella, fennel salsa verde. She opted for a salad to start, Lattuga -Organic Leaf lettuce, organic cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, basil buttermilk vinaigrette – and then the house-named pizza, Vignola – Roasted tomatoes, aged provolone & stracciatella cheese, San Marzano tomato, basil pesto.
As we waited for the orders, we nibbled on some focaccia, sipped our drinks, and watched the food work it’s way to other tables. After skipping any cheese or charcuterie, those luscious conglomerations of meat and dairy made my mouth water as they went by and I had a tiny bit of non-ordering regret. Still, I was excited for what I did request, and as we watched lots of people head upstairs for a wedding party of some sort, my desire to dig into some food grew to a bundle of ravenous anticipation. No sooner did the drooling start than I received my Tonno and she the Lattuga.
The Tonno looked pretty much like what I expected. The four stuffed cherry peppers were topped with crumbs and sat in a field of shredded raddichio. A couple of the peppers were on the plump side while the other two were a bit small. I had ordered that particular starter because I have a fondness for both pickled cherry peppers and tuna. I wasn’t looking for anything too far out of the box and a bite of one of them proved to be what I envisioned. The cherry peppers exhibited a nice, but not extreme, heat and some acid. The tuna added a little heft, and the crumbs provided a small crunch. I’m not sure where the raddichio fit in outside of offering a nice presentation, but I ate it because I happen to like the partially purple leaf. My wife nibbled on her no-frills salad as I sliced, diced, and consumed my peppers.
We didn’t take long to finish our first courses and soon our places were cleared for pizza. Those came out without any significant delay and we observed the seductively sizable saucers steaming. I took a tiny bite, but it was too hot for my sensitive palate, so I laid back for a minute as it cooled. My wife took a bite of hers, and being much tougher than I, felt it was of an edible temperature and seemed to be enjoying it. I slowly went back to my slice and got into it. The house-made pepperoni was thicker than the standard and had a definite beef flavor. I didn’t find it as spicy as a typical pepperoni, but enjoyed it for what it was – a slightly new look at the common pizza covering. In addition to the ‘ronis, the olives added a bit of flavor and the slightly sweet tomato sauce was also a nice touch. I wasn’t sold on the fennel salsa verde when I ordered, but the amount on the pie was just enough to add a little extra seasoning to the pizza and I hardly noticed any fennel flavor, which to me was a bonus.
My wife’s Vignola wasn’t far off from a Margherita, but the addition of the sweet, creamy stracciatella gave it a little more of a substantial flavor profile. My issue with a standard Marguarita is that cheese is used sparingly and, while that is the proper preparation, I prefer more cheese in addition to lots of tomato and basil. This one had a leg up on the old classic and like the salsa on the pepperoni, the basil pesto added just the right amount of pop to give a little “umph” to the righteous, crusty creation.
After eating my entire pizza and a piece of the wife’s, we were ready to call it quits. We looked at a Dolci menu, but a full belly led us down a dessert-free path. At only $68 before tip, our meal seemed quite reasonable. We enjoyed our food, and though we didn’t get particularly adventurous with our choices, I think it’s safe to say that Vignola has their ducks in a row. Our relatively simple food was prepared well and with a little extra style that made it worthwhile in a city of fantastic food. Though I’m basing it off a memory which hardly exists any longer and despite our orders, it seems that their menu has more exciting choices than they did back in the day and they definitely have superb cheese and charcuterie options. I think that from now on, Vignola will be on my list for both meals and pre-meal drinks and snacks. Consider adding it to your repertoire too.
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