Ah, poco Enio’s. Such good food in such a tiny, out-of-the-way place.
In most instances, small size is a plus — cozy nooks for romantic repasts and intimate conversations, the owner’s personal touch as he brings you the house special.
Here, you get the distinctive food and that individual touch, but not the landscape you might like. That is, if you want to linger.
The space is a long, narrow room occupying the former Buttered Biscuit bakery. Among the 36 seats, only a dozen are at tables, and these 12 are in two groups of six separated by the central bar. The rest of the chairs are high, either at the bar with stools or at a straight counter running along the front window. The counter top is narrow, resembling those at coffee bars.
There’s simply not much room. Pairs will be all right here, but a group will find it almost impossible to converse.
Now that the spatial critique is out of the way, let me get to the main attraction — the food.
“Stuffies,” said the chalkboard, only hinting at the two clamshells filled with a delicious mix of chopped clams, chorizo and bread cubes ($9). An appropriately bitter and soupy broccoli rabe side dish with sausage, romano and slivers of garlic ($10), along with the stuffies, started the night very well indeed.
Just when one thinks bruschetta is getting a little too predictable, here comes a perfect taste and texture combination of salty meat (Broadbent ham), creamy buffalo milk cheese and a healthy tangle of tangy pickled fennel ($6). Share only if you must.
The lemon vinaigrette seemed indifferently applied to an arugula salad, which held lots of greens, crispy pancetta and softened onions that were billed as caramelized yet weren’t nicely browned and sticky-sweet. It was a small disappointment ($12) among the small plates. A clutch of miniature meatballs in a tomato ragu were chunky, home-style and humble ($8).
A chalkboard entree special — cod with steamed clams over fregola (a semolina pasta that’s shaped like tiny beads and toasted) — was a flavorful mix of fresh seafood very nicely prepared, with broccolini in the brothy mix and those pasta pearls rolling in the bowl ($23).
Two beautiful sections of beef tenderloin came atop a hearty mushroom sauce with beef and mushroom-stuffed ravioli squares, another delicious but uncomplicated dish from the kitchen of co-owner and chef Laura Butler ($23).
The relatively low prices for these excellent entrees, the most expensive on the menu, suggest that you aren’t paying for what you don’t get — namely, a full bar, lots of elbow room, cushy seats and hovering service.
Rather, this is a cozy Italian cafe, offering a small collection of well-composed and uncomplicated dishes that are different from the old-school litany of red-sauce classics.
Service was friendly and up-tempo on the very busy Saturday night we visited. Laura’s husband, Bob (the front-of-the-house presence) and one waitress worked the dining room.
With the chef and a dishwasher the only ones in the back, it was impressive how the quartet got the food to tables in a timely way, orchestrated the seating arrangements, and proffered wine and water.
But this is a husband-and-wife team with experience. In May 1996, the Butlers opened Rachel’s Wood Grill in the Old Port of Portland. They moved the restaurant to the Deering neighborhood in 2003, and sold it in 2009. They then spent three years in Florida before moving back to Cape Elizabeth, to this Cottage Road location.
“This wasn’t supposed to happen so quickly,” said Bob, referring to the crowd at Enio’s on this night and how fast business at the small eatery, open since mid-March, has accelerated. Yet he, along with his talented wife, managed to finesse the space, food and service with aplomb.
The atmosphere is clean, light and unfussy. It’s an attractive space, with just a few rustic and contemporary accents.
And indeed, the interior matches the couple’s intention to create a cafe-style restaurant at which locals can stop by for a small plate, a snack or a glass of wine, but not necessarily an entree.
To that end, the menu includes more mix-and- match items than big plates. Choose from “jars” containing such items as roasted winter squash puree or smoked fish mousse served with grilled bread; small plates such as classic Caesar salad or calamari saute; or a simple bowl of pasta pomodoro.
Our luxurious finish was Italian rum cake ($8), one of four desserts that Laura made for the evening. This towering, six-layer wedge looked as wonderful as it tasted, with a heavenly whipped cream frosting and dark chocolate and vanilla custards between layers of light and rich rum-soaked cake.
Nancy Heiser has been writing Dine Out Maine reviews since March 2011. She can be reached at: