SEARSMONT — On a steamy summer day, Christina Sidoti turned her white Jeep down Christina’s Way, a dirt road several miles from the coast.
She pulled up to a wooden gate with a sign that said Well Fed Farm, then walked onto about an acre of organic vegetables destined for her Camden restaurant, Paolina’s Way. Her little dog, a cottony-white Coton de Tulear named Cannoli, frolicked at her feet before running off in search of adventure.
Fay Strongin, one of four women who worked the farm this year, pointed out the things that were ready or nearly so – spinach, parsley, onions, leeks, carrots, peppers, celery.
Sidoti decides that the evening’s menu, in addition to a lobster pizza special and a spinach lasagna, will include a beet and haricot vert salad over mixed greens. Turnips will be mashed and served alongside whole sea perch seasoned with coarse salt, stuffed with herbs and roasted in the restaurant’s wood-fired oven.
“We feel very personally attached to all of the vegetables that come from the ground,” Sidoti said. “If I look in the refrigerator and I see things wilting and the staff hasn’t started to cook it off, I don’t raise my voice, but I’ll say, ‘This beautiful rainbow chard – it’s going to wilt! Cook it!’ “
Sidoti could be channeling the spirit of her Italian grandmother, Paolina Rella, whose devotion to fresh, delicious ingredients helped inspire Sidoti to open her own restaurant.
Paolina’s Way has been open just shy of two years, but thanks to all the rain the state received last summer, this was the first year Sidoti was able to truly realize her vision of starting a farm and using its all-organic harvest to share her grandmother’s passion for food.
HEALTHY APPETITE FOR FINE DINING
Primo, chef Melissa Kelly’s culinary temple to fresh, local cuisine just down the road in Rockland, has been doing this kind of thing for years. But Sidoti’s restaurant represents one of the newer dining ventures that are building on the midcoast’s growing reputation as a great place to eat.
The midcoast’s appetite for good food seems insatiable, with choices ranging from a five-course tasting menu at Natalie’s, the restaurant at the Camden Harbour Inn, to grabbing a Reuben at Farmers Fare made with house-corned natural beef and Morse’s Sauerkraut.
Chef Brian Hill is building on the success of Francine Bistro, his well-regarded restaurant in Camden, with Shepherd’s Pie, a new pub-style place in Rockport that seems constantly packed with customers.
Annemarie Ahearn’s new cooking school in Lincolnville, Saltwater Farm, holds “Full Moon Suppers” and other feasts created with ingredients grown right on the premises.
Sidoti thinks the midcoast palate is growing more sophisticated in part due to the influx of people who come for events such as the PopTech conference and the Camden International Film Festival.
“These conferences and think tanks and festivals drive so many people to our area, a lot of whom fall in love with this area and relocate, and most are foodies,” Sidoti said. “And like me, most of us have left cities. We’re looking for a place that will keep us intellectually stimulated but also speak to the quality of life.”
Sidoti spent her childhood summers in Maine, but grew up in New York and first learned about food in her grandmother’s kitchen in Queens.
“There was never a day she didn’t have a fresh, beautiful meal on the table, and a smile on her face when she did it,” Sidoti said. “It was done completely and utterly with love, all the time. I don’t know how someone does that, but I aspire to be like that. And that’s what I want the restaurant to feel like.”
IN THE HEART OF CAMDEN
Paolina’s Way is tucked in an alley by the public landing, just off Bayview Street. The old building had never been home to a restaurant before, so when Sidoti bought and renovated it, she had her work cut out for her. She added not only a kitchen, but a large wood-fired oven where the restaurant’s signature thin-crust pizzas are made.
Sidoti lives on the top floor, where there’s a beautiful balcony that overlooks Camden Harbor. An interior designer rents a middle floor, and the restaurant is on the ground floor with a few tables outside covered by an awning. Walking by will make you feel as if you’ve been transported to Italy.
Inside, patrons are greeted with warm ochre tones and exposed granite from the foundation of the building. The room is brightened by the sunflower-yellow tables and booths. There are about 50 seats; closer to 70 if the outdoor and bar seating are included.
Hanging near the door is a portrait of Sidoti’s grandmother.
“The spaghetti and meatballs is her recipe,” Sidoti said. “The fried calamari, so good. Umm, I’m trying to remember everything. Oh my god, the arancini, they’re rice balls. Have you had those? That’s Grandma’s recipe. We stuff them with pine nuts and meat and “
She lowers her voice and speaks quickly.
“ … she put raisins in but I don’t … capers and then roll them in Parmesan cheese and our homemade bread crumbs.”
Why no raisins? “I don’t like them. Don’t tell her.”
The chicken cutlets in winter are Paolina’s, as are the lamb sauce in spring. And, of course, the homemade pasta.
The restaurant makes its own bread, bread sticks and focaccia daily, and its pizzas are hand-thrown.
Classical music plays while Sidoti’s friendly staff moves around the tiny kitchen, trying not to get in each other’s way.
“We run a very tight ship,” Sidoti said. “There’s nothing in here that we don’t need. And that’s the beauty of a small kitchen. Everybody’s station is small and efficient, so we can prepare 100-plus dinners a night.”
On a counter is a pan of sliced beets that have just spent two minutes roasting in the oven.
“They literally were pulled out of the ground this morning,” Sidoti said.
A new delivery arrives from Well Fed Farm about every other day. (It’s called Well Fed for obvious reasons, but also because there’s a well on the property used to water the crops.) A typical summer delivery contained three and a half pounds each of arugula, kale and chard, 20 heads of romaine lettuce and five pounds each of beets, mixed greens, spinach and turnip greens.
Strongin says since this is the first year the farm has been in production, at least 20 different crops were planted, each in several different varieties, to see “what works well for the restaurant and what grows well on this land. So this is really an experimental year.”
The challenge in growing food for a restaurant is not overproducing anything but keeping food coming consistently.
And using everything. If just a little bit of thyme comes in, it gets thrown into the lobster stock.
Sidoti tells her staff to imagine being at home in their garden “and oh, I have a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and we can make something wonderful with it just for the one night.
“It’s a lot of extra work, but when it gets to the table, it’s worthwhile.”
Paolina would be proud.
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: [email protected]