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Restaurateurs keep it real with authentic pizza and more

The owners of Portland Italian mainstay Paciarino have opened a new pizza shop just a hop and a skip away. The aptly named Pizzarino features authentic Italian pizza, salads, risotto/risotto balls, and a number of beverages and desserts. I went with a buddy, hoping to get the feel for what they were serving and how things were going only days after their doors opened. We were seated at the far end of the restaurant right next to the kitchen.

About the time we sat down, a gentleman prepped a dj booth, introduced himself, donned a fedora, and began performing karaoke, starting with Sinatra and moving on to other crooners. It was a little odd, though I suppose it probably fit the scene. I was initially concerned that the volume might make conversation difficult, but since we were at the other end of the room, it turned out to be fine. If we had been closer, it may have been an issue.

Dual beverage pairings were offered on the menu with each food item. We ignored those and I stuck with water while he ordered a Coke. After a lengthy thought process with the food, we decided on our meals, cutely ordering the same items. Each of us would have the Insalata Milano – Arcadian Salad topped with red onions, tomatoes, and parmesan cheese dressed with daily-made vinaigrette – followed by the Prosciutto Cotto Pizza – mozzarella, tomato sauce, prosciutto-cotto-ham, extra virgin olive oil, basil.

I thought the salads could have come out a little faster, but they did eventually show up. They were large – delivered in a metal bowl with handles on either end – of which we were informed in advance. The greens were bright and fresh with a fair amount of grated parm on top. My first bite was quite pleasant. The housemade dressing was stellar. I felt it was among the more well-seasoned Italians/vinaigrettes in town and combined magnificently with the parm to create a truly flavorful salad that was the perfect prep for pizza.

With the veggies done, we waited for the pie and again, they were just a little slow to be delivered. They arrived as “single-serving” (10in?) uncut saucers that were the same size as the plates underneath. Upon asking we were informed that we should simply eat them with a fork and knife. I fogot about all the other times in my life I ate pizza (by the slice) and got to cutting a piece.

The meat and basil looked a little sparse. However, with the first bite, I better understood what was going on. The whole wheat crust was thin which made it easy eating, but toppings were doled out proportionally. More toppings would have been overpowering. This wasn’t an extravagant, gargantuan pizza; it was traditional Italian simplicity.

We finished the pizza and I probably could have had another, though I think most would find the size more than satisfactory for one. We decided not to stop there and grabbed a dessert to finish the meal, as large, hungry people sometimes do. There were a fair number of choices including dessert pizzas and tiramisu, among others, but we decided on the Sorbetto al Limoncello – Sicilian lemon gelato swirled with Limoncello sauce.

Our frozen finale came in a tall, thin glass that was probably a little too romantic for our man-date. It was not exactly what I expected, but quite tasty. It had a creaminess to it that was surprising and went down a little slow since it was so cold. Warming it with my hands helped soften it a bit and I eventually made my way through it, savoring its swet and sour citrus flavors.

With two Cokes, two each of the three items we ordered, and a pizza to take home to Mrs. Portlandeater, the tab came to about $97 after tip. I was really impressed with the salad and thought the pizza was good enough to add to my rotation, especially if I wasn’t looking for just a massive pie and nothing else. My only hope would be that service would speed up slightly, though it wasn’t that bad considering I was there on their sixth day. Head there soon and check out a pizza place that’s Italian through and through. Pizzarino adds another to Portland’s list of pizza eateries that have a style all their own.

505 Fore St.
207-536-1189
pizzarino.portland@gmail.com

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Don’t miss out on the pesto at this Italian restaurant

Solo Italiano’s menu changes daily and it might just have been what we ordered that day many moons ago when we first went, but I didn’t feel like it was a great value. However, while on our recent food tour we stopped by and were quite impressed with our tasting. It made us want to get back immediately to see if, and how, they had progressed.

We had reservations and were seated at a familiar table – the one we had occupied for a short time just the week prior. I didn’t really have anything to compare the menu to since I hadn’t had a meal there in so long, but at first glance, the selection did strike me as more interesting than on my initial visit. My wife ordered a Rose from the ample wine list and we began discussing the menu.

There were a number of apps and entrees available. Among the starters were some raw items, focaccia, salads, and more. Entrees included both pasta and non-pasta dishes. I was in the mood for a salad and some pasta though I had to work out which ones from the numerous options. I also wanted to coordinate with Mrs. Portlandeater so we didn’t order the same items.

She went with the Insalata di Granchio – Jonah crab meat, chilled carnaroli rice, cucumber, heirloom cherry tomato, lemon, chive – to start. Her main course was Mandilli al Vero Pesto Genovese – handkerchief pasta tossed in an authentic Genovese basil pesto (from the food tour). I chose a starter of Barbabiettole – organic roasted beet salad with Stonecipher Farm beets, gorgonzola dolce, Dandelion Spring Farms baby arugula, dressed with honey, lemon, olive oil, and sea salt. My entree was Lasagne al Portofino – Genovese Lasagne, speck, basil pesto, bechamel, farm potatoes and fava beans, Parmigiana-Reggiano, pine nuts.

The starters were both very attractive and well-plated. Their size was strong for appetizers. My salad had lots of beet bites and three dallops of the dolce on top of the arugula. A little lemon zest was sprinkled on the side of the bowl. I tried a bite and loved it except that that the dolce was really strong and needed to be spread throughout. I hadn’t had beets recently, but they were excellent and the sweet, acidic dressing was a great compliment. It was a tasty, hearty salad.

Her dish was listed under the raw choices, but I wasn’t sure what was raw about it even after having had a taste. I loved that it had plenty of crab while the rice and vegetables added a base that didn’t remove any of the flavor. It was sushi-like – relatively light and refreshing while having serious seafood deliciousness. We cleaned our plates and had high hopes for our entrees.

I think it’s fair to say that I didn’t know what to expect from a green lasagna with no red sauce. The fava beans and pine nuts were on top, the speck on the bottom. The rest of the ingredients were mainly within the dozen or more thin layers. I took my first bite and really liked the crispy “overcooked” edge. The pesto was brilliant as it had been the week prior. The speck added a really nice touch that was different and more exciting than a traditional meat sauce.

Since I had eaten the handkerchief pasta she had just recently, I knew it was excellent, but a few more bites of it just reinforced that. The astounding creaminess and up-front basil left nothing behind in terms of flavor and overall feel in the mouth. And it wasn’t just the pesto that made it so good as the squirrely pasta was so light and delicate, it felt almost like it could be consumed without chewing (though I wouldn’t recommend that).

When all was said and done, our food came to $112 including tip. It was certainly a better experience than we had there the first time in that the meals just felt more complete for the price. I was quite impressed every step of the way. You can’t go wrong with the pesto, so I highly recommend that, but I enjoyed everything we ordered. Solo Italiano is definitely worthy of a visit and I recommend trying as many items as you can handle, or maybe even more.

100 Commercial St.
207-780-0227

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Maine Food for Thought tour is informative and tasty

I was recently invited to take a complimentary food tour through Portland. The Land Sea to Fork tour by Maine Food for Thought started last month and – at least when I went – was led by Bryce Hach who owns the company along with his wife Sarah. The tour focuses not just on eating great food, but learning about the food system and its impact on Maine and the people who live and visit our state.

The tour started at Union and took us to six different eateries. Each one was chosen because it offered something to eat that could also be used to teach about the effect our food has on us. What follows are some pictures and a few words about what we ate. It should be noted that the offerings at each location can and do change quite regularly.

Union

Chowder w/ coconut milk, lemongrass, hake, lobster oil, clam, potato
A nice starter soup with plenty of fish flavor, this beautiful bowl got us started nicely.

390 Congress Street
207-808-8700

Evo

Spicy Potato from Stonecipher Farm – tumeric, garlic, coriander, cayenne, cumin, mustard seeds, jalapeno, cilantro, yogurt

This wasn’t too spicy hot, but had multifaceted flavoring from all the spices in it.

443 Fore St
207-358-7830

Solo Italiano

Handmade Handkerchief Pasta with world award-winning Genovese pesto w/ basil from Olivia’s Garden, extra virgin olive oil, parmesan, pinenuts

This turned out to be my favorite dish of the day. The pasta was exceptionally delicate and literally fell on the plate like a handkerchief. The pesto won best in the world for good reason. Rather than oily and separating, it was creamy and full-bodied – an absolute work of art.

100 Commercial St.
207-780-0227

Scales

Bangs Island Mussels – Raye’s mustard, local cider, cream, house shallot garlic thyme butter, bread from Standard Baking

These mussels were like I’ve never had and the key to them was Raye’s mustard. The last traditional stone ground mustard mill in North America makes an incredible condiment which takes mussels – and probably anything else – to another level.

68 Commercial St.
207-805-0444

East Ender

Lobster Roll – lobster mayo, tomato, cheese

How could lobster be bad? It wasn’t, but East Ender was busy on Saturday afternoon, making this the one place where it might have been tough for some to hear the story of Maine’s most beloved shellfish.

47 Middle St.
207-879-7669

Piccolo

Strawberries from Stonecipher Farm w/ pistachio, white chocolate mousse

I could have eaten 25 of these desserts. Light, only a lightly sweet, and really delicious, they were a perfect finish to our tour.

111 Middle St.
207-747-5307

The Land Sea to Fork tour costs $72 and takes three hours or less. It involves a total of about one mile of walking and they take no more than 13 people per tour. I found it fun, informative, and a nice way to pass a summer afternoon. It’s probably ideal for tourists, but at least half the people on my tour were from Maine. If you’re interested in learning about what’s for dinner here in Maine, check it out.

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Lio has the feel, food, and fun, but at a cost

James Beard award-nominated chef Cara Stadler opened her third restaurant just a few weeks ago. As a fan of her other eateries – Tao Yuan (Brunswick) and Bao Bao – Lio was immediately a must-try. The restaurant – focused on wine and small plates – is located on a second floor which also has available outdoor seating.

Upon reaching the top of the stairs and entering the restaurant, I was amazed by the beautiful setting. From the “horseshoes connected by bridges” bars that ran through the entire center of the main room to the beautiful glass-enclosed wine cellar/room, the design was unique and exciting. We had reserved a table, but since they were all on the outskirts of the room, we ditched our reservation and sat in the center of the action (it was early and slow, so the “action” was limited).

While a few of the half dozen signature cocktails looked appealing, none made me so thirsty as The Vault Key – Bully Boy Vodka, rhubarb, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao, Cardamaro, lemon, lime cordial ($13). The wine list was long and the glass options were more than sufficient and available by the full or half glass. Mrs. Portlandeater went with a full glass of Rose ($11) and we began to seek the right food for the evening.

Once initial decisions were made, we ordered the Potato Chips and Caviar – Imperial Baerii, creme fraiche, shallot, egg, lemon ($15) – and Snow Pond – unpasteurized goat’s milk cheese from Kennebec Cheesery, with rhubarb compote, candied pecans and crostini ($7). As we often do with small plates, we planned to order in waves.

My drink was spectacular. It had beautiful, tart fruit flavors with hardly any sweetness and went down smoothly. It was composed of many of my favorite flavors which worked together perfectly and made a great warm weather libation. We sipped for a few and a complimentary aperativo plate was delivered. I hadn’t paid attention, but a sign outside touted that from 5-6, one would be provided with the order of any drink. Our special plate included preparations of shrimp, raw tuna, and carrots.

A board of five dressed homemade chips and our cheese came out together. I wasn’t particularly excited about eating the Imperial Baerii (caviar) on top, but in trying to expand my palette, I did. I must say the concoction as a whole was delightful. The little pile of toppings on each chip acted as a cool, refreshing dip. The Snow Pond provided a solid cheese and cracker option, but I felt the compote a tad too sweet of an accompaniment – distracting from the cheese more than adding to it.

I ordered a middle plate between our starter and main courses – Napa Cabbage Salad – Point Reyes blue cheese dressing, sugar snap peas, pea shoots, duck fat croutons, sunflower seeds ($12). The salad came with a paprika-based seasoning on top and a few pickled green tomatoes. It was relatively large and I liked the looks of the concoction.

It might have been the blue cheese, or the seasoning, or even the tomatoes, but I found the cabbage salad – a favorite of mine – to be a stellar dish. With lots of crunch and some nice tones of flavor, it was a satisfying precursor to my upcoming main course. It took a while to eat since there was more volume to it than our starters, but I enjoyed the process thoroughly.

Our main courses were Seared Scallops – brown butter, almonds, pecorino, sage, kohlrabi, boquerones, Meyer lemon, capers ($16) – for me and Maine Lobster Risotto – fava beans, garlic scapes, fennel, parmesan, preserved lemon ($21) – for her. I had four large half-scallops laying on the round side with their tops encrusted in what I could only assume was pure goodness. There was a smattering of kohlrabi, almonds, and capers artfully strewn about.

The scallops were indeed magical. I was stunned as I could literally taste each flavor in every bite – cheese, herbs, anchovy, and lemon in the crust. I loved everything about my entree. The lobster risotto was pleasant with lots of creamy cheese. While I was happy with the couple of bites that I had, the scallops were more flavorful to me.

We considered ending our meal once we finished what we had, but couldn’t turn down Plum and Raspberry Bavarian Cake – almond, beach rose sherbet ($10). What appeared to be the most exciting dessert item displayed a virtual rainbow of colors, incorporating fruit, candies, and flowers into its presentation. The cake was light as was the sherbet. The fruit flavors were perfect for the season and I appreciated that it wasn’t too sugary. Once done, were given a few strawberry candies, then paid and made our way out.

Lio was a fine experience. I most enjoyed my salad and scallops and my drink was also a highlight. My only concern about Lio is the pricing. I don’t mind paying for excellent food, but I did find the cost a little steep for what was provided. The chips are probably the best example at $15 for only 5, but some other items also seemed a little too expensive for what they were. It was recommend that we order three plates each, which is what we did, and with tip, the meal came to $136.

Despite the cost, I found Lio to be a beautiful setting, the food to be enjoyable, and the service up to par. I would recommend a visit. Just be aware that you might find yourself paying toward the higher end of casual meals in Portland. Still, if you’re looking for a good new place to settle in for drinks and/or food, there’s another viable restaurant in town.

3 Spring St.
207-808-7133

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Home made pasta is where it’s at

Fore St.’s purveyor of Italian food, Paciarino has been around for a number of years. They offer a select menu of items including apps and entrees – many of which include their home made pasta and some of which are available to carry out or for delivery if you’re from away. They also carry a sizable selection of wine and a couple Italian beers for your imbibing pleasure.

New since I was last at the restaurant, there were prepackaged Grissini breadsticks waiting on the table as part of each place setting. They apppeared to take the place of the fresh bread which had previously been served with olive oil. To me, complimentary bread is nice, but it’s not something I require as part of my meal, though I suppose the breadsticks weren’t quite as high quality. I ate them without hesitation nonetheless.

She ordered a Prosecco and I went with a Peroni before peering at the food options. Though the menu isn’t huge, there was some question as to whether I wanted to try something new or order an item I had had previously such as their spectacular lasagna. We both started with the Italian Salad – fresh greens, cherry tomatoes, red onions with aged vinegar and extra virgin olive oil – and I decided that one of their specials would do and went with the Black Tagliolini with Lobster. Mrs. Portlandeater chose the Ravioli Spinaci Alla Bolognese – ravioli with ricotta, spinach, fresh garlic & parmesan, topped with homemade Bolognese sauce and parmesan.

We were there early and the place hadn’t yet filled as it generally does when I go. Our salads came out and we remembered immediately that we usually only order one and share them because they are so large. With plenty of fresh veggies and a sprinkle of cheese on top, the salad was delicious with its perfect appointment of dressing.

The ravioli and tagliolini appeared next. Lobster and cherry tomatoes dotted my squid ink-colored pasta. Her ravioli was requested meat-free, and as such, came with basic tomato sauce and speckles of parm. I was satisfied with the portions, but felt that her ravioli in particular stood out when compared to others around town for both size and price.

Garlic and oil were heavily distributed throughout my plate and the lobster and pasta took them on well. I was particularly pleased with their house made noodles were simply some of the best I’ve had. Fresh pasta makes a huge difference and the textures and flavors of theirs was about as pleasant as one could expect.

With plenty of fresh lobster, my dish was both hearty and satisfying. I reveled in the seafood and semolina goodness. I tried one of my wife’s ravioli which was filled with cheese and garlic, creating a slightly decadent pocket of tasty dough. I would have preferred the meat sauce, but she clearly enjoyed it the way she had ordered.

When all was said and done, our meal came to just over $100 with tax and tip. There are a number of Italian restaurants that have opened in Portland over the past few years and I like many of them. But Paciarino holds a special place in my heart and it’s most certainly because their pasta is on another level. They make it daily and it adds a component to their meals that differentiates them from many of the other Italian cuisine purveyors around here. Whatever you get, it’s guaranteed to be tasty, fresh, and filling.

470 Fore St.
207-774-3500
paciarino.com

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There is one more lobster restaurant in Portland but there are never enough

I’m of the opinion that there can never be too many good seafood restaurants in town. While Maine Lobster Shack on Fore St. isn’t right on the coast, it’s close enough to feel the part and its April opening added another spot for both locals and tourists to choose from when thinking about where to get their seafood fix.

We took a trip to MLS on a beautiful Friday night and chose to sit outside. It was quiet in the Old Port and the restaurant wasn’t particularly busy, so the scene was quite serene. We were provided with both drink and food menus. Never having been and not knowing what to expect, I was surprised by the size of the menu, expecting purely lobster-based items, but there was a full offering of Maine seafood specialties.

There were plenty of beer, wine, and liquor options, but she stuck with a soda water and lime while I just had a standard, oft underappreciated water. The food menu started with soups/chowders, oysters, steamers, fried seafood, and shrimp and crab items. Lobster, rolls, and salads came next, followed by plates, mac and cheese, and sandwiches.

it was either a lobster roll or some fried seafood for me and since my wife wanted a roll, I went with the fried. There were clams (whole belly or strips), oysters, scallops, or calamari from which to choose. I went with Scallops (served with tartar or cocktail sauce), but the fried seafood was considered a starter and didn’t come with sides, so I also ordered Coleslaw and Onion Rings. She picked the Naked Lobster Roll – pure lobster meat on a roll served w/ fries and coleslaw and side of drawn butter and mayo.

When the food came out, I immediately thought that the portion sizes were fair. There were eight large scallops ($16) and at $4 each, the sides were plentiful. My wife’s roll was quite full, though I expected it to be for $22.50. We requested silverware and tartar sauce for me and took the ketchup from the basket of condiments, each squirting a fair allotment of the tomato-based flavorer in our baskets.

Once I had the proper utensils and sauces, I snagged a scallop. The lightly breaded, cylindrical mass of seafood was mildly seasoned, fresh, and perfectly sweet. Its natural flavors shined and paired perfectly with the tartar sauce when I chose to dip them in that. The coleslaw was mayo based and the onion rings had heavy breading. They were both solid – not far out of the ordinary, but well made and an appropriate compliment to fried seafood.

My wife’s roll was grilled. I don’t remember ever having a roll with plain lobster meat, though plenty of locations offer them. I took a bite and was impressed. The meat was fresh and tender and I confirmed there was plenty of it in there. The roll gave just a little butter flavor. It was definitely a healthier lobster roll than most if you’re into that sort of thing.

All the food got finished and my hunger was fully satiated. Maine Lobster Shack turned out to be an excellent place to eat and the outdoor seating in nearly perfect Maine weather led to an outstanding experience. Their menu is robust enough that one could make many visits there before eating the same item twice. If you like oysters, fried seafood, and lobster rolls, they’ve got what you want and much more beyond that.

I wouldn’t say that Maine Lobster Shack is the best at any one thing, but they performed well with everything we had. They seem to have a solid grasp on casual seaside fare and the Fore St. location really is a fun, central spot in the Old Port. Have beers and oysters outdoors, lobster rolls and fries indoors, or whatever combo of atmosphere and seafood you want. I think you’ll find a pleasant experience without any wanting for more when you’re through.

425 Fore St.
207-835-0700
mainelobstershack.com

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New Portland bar with presidential theme opens on June 1st

Owner Ryan Deskins doesn’t expect to sell a lot of the Trump cocktail. Served in a beautiful gold martini glass (which you can keep) full of hot air with an elaborate orange twist garnish, the price of $2,500 is probably a bit steep for most customers, especially for a drink that “will leave you feeling regretful and unsatisfied, with hints of existential horror.”

Those visiting Sagamore Hill in Downtown/West End and not thrilled about laughter at 45s expense might be more inclined to order “The Blue Dress” or any other of the presidential-themed cocktails being offered when they open on June 1st. There won’t be any meals served, but Deskins promises a variety of bar snacks holding to the theme, including peanuts, pretzels, and jelly beans. Food trucks will also be present starting June 10th.

Opening in what was once the lobby of a luxury hotel, with an outdoor patio for up to 40 patrons in addition to the 60 seats inside, the bar pays tribute to the summer home of Teddy Roosevelt and the elegant details reflect that. Those details include 3,000 pounds of curved walnut ribs above the bar mimicking a boat hull, in reference to Roosevelt’s time as Assistant Secretary of the Navy.

The bar has been a year and a half in the making, so June can’t come soon enough, but Deskins says they might even open early and potential visitors will know they’re open “when the pictures in the windows come down”. In addition to specialty cocktails, patrons can expect 30 or so beers (draft, cans, and bottles, with many locals), about 20 wines, and a stong selection of bourbon and rye, including some rarities.

Hours will be 4-1 Mon-Fri and 12-1 on the weekend. Though all the design and construction isn’t quite complete yet, it’s getting very close. Sagamore Hill looks to be a fun place to grab a drink whether you’re with friends, on a date, or headed to or from dinner. It’s theme and beautiful detail will make it inviting and comfortable. The patio will be a great option in the warmer months. Take a swing by in June and let me know what you think.

150 Park St.
sagamorehillmaine.com

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