Categorizing Italian food is like categorizing United States food. It varies. Alabama is not famous for its clam chowder, and it takes an effort to find hush puppies in Maine.
Likewise, many of us are familiar with the Italian central region’s red sauce and pasta without realizing the northern Swiss border areas are more likely to serve polenta. Bologna provides an abundance of mortadella, while southern Sicily offers oranges, lemons, almonds and olives. (Note: Sicilians also claim they invented the meatball.)
Italy is fanatically regional in its cuisine. Add individual homestyle expectations, and the challenge of finding an authentic Italian restaurant gets as complex as “authentic” becomes a loaded term.
Italian friends often cringe at the general perception of their cuisine, citing all manner of culinary inaccuracies, while I argue that holding fast to a single word often means missing a bigger picture: Authentic or not, good food tastes good. So while native-born Italians debate the authenticity of Italian menus, know that Espo’s Trattoria in Portland serves very tasty food.
Located on outer Congress Street, it’s family-owned and operated, as explained by cheerful server Briana Esposito. When she arrived at the table with Parmesan cheese and olive oil, her friendly energy was welcome on a cold night.
The dining room was dimly lit and the tables well-spaced — not overly cozy, but neither did we have to shout conversation. The area lacked contemporary design, but it was also refreshingly void of stereotype: Not a candle wax-covered wine bottle in sight.
A self-conscious, dressed-up young couple on a first date sat at the table to the right, and a family with two little ones took the table behind us.
Although Espo’s delivered an overall fabulous experience, it was not before first delivering very cold, stale-tasting bread. Olive oil and cheese did little to rescue the bread, and it was a disappointing start.
Disappointing, that is, until the wine arrived.
I love to wonder about restaurant wine lists — who does the choosing? The chef? The wine sales guy? At Espo’s, it’s someone who clearly understands the intricacies of food pairings.
The by-the-glass wine list is where Espo’s gets good — and by good, I mean excellent. Not for originality or price, but for a clear understanding of food enhancement. The house Chianti was Placido, the Montepulciano was Masciarello, and the Rosso? A Francis Ford Coppola blend, each for $5.95 to $7.95.
More on this wine in a moment.
Given the bread’s initial impression, I expected the Caprese Salad ($6.99) in January to be a stretch. Maine’s limited growing season is not conducive to year-round plump, summer Heirlooms, but the Espo’s winter tomatoes were fine. The basil was fresh, the mozzarella smooth, and the balsamic was sweetly acidic.
The side-order meatball ($4.99) was the size of a baseball, covered with homemade red sauce and well-mixed with no hint of dryness or crumble, ample enough for the entire table to taste.
The dinner menu offered a mix of pastas, salads, steaks and seafood. We chose traditional favorites Linguine with Gorgonzola ($16.99 with shrimp added), Chicken Marsala ($15.99), Linguine with Alfredo Sauce ($9.99) and Meat Lasagne ($15.99).
Gorgonzola is a strong-tasting cheese. It’s strong-smelling too, and people tend to love it or hate it, but Espo’s kitchen used a rare and delicate magic to create a cream sauce with just a hint of that ripe flavor. Nothing about the sauce was overwhelming in any way. It tasted rich, but with no off-putting pungency.
Remember that wine? The Rosso — a blend of Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah — was outstanding when sipped solo, but together with the gorgonzola sauce, it was magnificent. The food made the robust wine taste more complex, while the wine enhanced the subtle flavors of the food.
It was the same for the Chianti and the Montepulciano. These wines each struck a fabulous food-beverage balance. Taken separately, delicious. Put together? Heaven. (I also noted Vueve Clicquot’s appearance on the wine list for $69. Not for this night, but definitely as a special-occasion treat.) Well done, Espo’s!
The alfredo sauce for the linguine met a specific barometer: As we lingered and chatted, the sauce stayed creamy with no sign of congeal or cornstarch-y flavor as it cooled. The shrimp was not native to Maine, but it tasted firm and not overcooked.
The meat lasagne portion could feed three, and in addition to its four cheeses, included ground sirloin, sausage and pepperoni — I swear it weighed several pounds when hefted across the table.
The star of the evening, however, was the Chicken Marsala. In the world of Italian eateries, there is marsala sauce, and then there is the sweet, ambrosia-like substance that reflects all the subtle texture and layers of a good Marsala wine at Espo’s. If that description reads a bit precious, it’s because the sauce was that good. Honest. We were eating the sauce with spoons.
For carb watchers, there is the option to have that marsala sauce served over a choice of chopped spinach instead of pasta. (If you can’t decide, Espo’s has no problem with a half-serving each.) Marsala sauce over chopped, steamed spinach? It was a delicious twist on a steakhouse-style favorite. Try it. The spinach is frozen and steamed, as is the non-native shrimp. Do not let this worry you. It tastes good.
My friends and I met up in the comfortable dining room, were seated quickly on a Wednesday night, and spent a few lovely hours talking careers, wedding plans, travel and relationships.
Server Briana kept us fed, offered suggestions and encouraged us to linger. We never once felt rushed, the food was a delicious experience, and the setting was conducive to quiet conversation.
While the menu may raise debate among native-born Italians, I promise that Espo’s is an authentic good time.
Shonna Milliken Humphrey is a freelance writer and author of the novel “Show Me Good Land.”