We entered Ports of Italy through the back door in order to park in its small but free lot, a big plus in downtown Boothbay Harbor in the summer.
Owner Sante Calandri welcomed us with vigor. We were ushered through an elegant dining area of dark furnishings and original works by several local artists to the porch, which was protected from potential elements by sheets of transparent plastic.
The night was young and the mid-June sunlight would extend, so it made some sense to place all the diners in this semi-outside area, which resembled a casual waterfront eatery as opposed to the ambience of that inner room. But one might expect the host to ask us if we had a seating preference.
Ports of Italy’s menu is a large but not overwhelming mix of Italian entrees, insalate, pasti and antipasti. The pasta is homemade and excellent. And we found a couple of rave-worthy dishes.
The eggplant roll, for instance. The vegetable was thinly sliced and wrapped around ricotta and parmesan, with herbs, garlic and a topping of tomato sauce. It was $10 as a filling and delicious appetizer.
Plenty of fennel curls crowned a bed of arugula with orange segments and a mild — almost to the point of meek — lemon dressing with capers, also $10. The two appetizers were large enough to share.
Lobster ravioli, each the size of a playing card, was a dreamy meld of sea and land. The pasta was firm and fresh and held a good balance of shredded lobster. These were served in a creamy prosecco and chive sauce that was another pleasure ($22).
A mix of mussels, calamari, littleneck clams, shrimp, scallops and fish were arranged like a blossom over al dente squid-ink-colored spaghetti, intriguing to behold. Not a bad price at $22, either, considering the depth of this splendid dish.
Also $22 was the ample porchetta, a house specialty. A “still life” of the dish is on display as you enter (I’m not sure why). The thickly sliced roll of moist roast suckling pig was studded with herbs and served with good roasted potatoes.
A tasty whole Mediterranean striped bass impressed with its presentation and simple olive oil, rosemary, garlic and lemon treatment. The entree, which is $32 (the fish is sourced in Italy), came with a side of asparagus that retained a bit of firmness.
Alas, none of the house’s delicious pasta was included. Use the bread, served in a brown paper bag with a rolled-down edge, to fill in the cracks.
Cannoli is made in-house, an admirable feat, although the tube lacked the crunchiness of the best and the filling was scant on dark chocolate bits.
Tiramisu was attractive and fluffy, mildly flavored. Each of those desserts was $9.
Despite all the excellent fare at Ports of Italy, perhaps the staff would like to take a mulligan for the evening’s service. While kudos go to the waiter for parsing our eggplant appetizer among four and ably deboning the sea bass at the table, missteps from several quarters were frequent enough to merit mentioning.
The owner, distracted by something else but eager to keep all glasses filled, poured mineral water into a half-filled wine glass. We had a laugh along with him and got a second bottle gratis. One could even call this misdemeanor a blessing in disguise.
But earlier, our waiter got a bar order wrong, bringing a glass of chardonnay instead of prosecco, rolling his eyes mysteriously as he took off with it without issuing an apology. Was he mad at the bartender? Himself? Us?
Later, a pour of mineral water went into a partly full still-water glass, no question asked about its contents beforehand. Basically, the beverage service was characterized by confusion.
At the conclusion of the meal a clearly stated request for decaf espresso arrived as decaf cappuccino. At one point we had to ask for cutlery.
This stuff happens at even the very best restaurants. Some nights purr, other nights clang. But at an upscale place in mid-June, which is not yet high season with its attendant crowds, service was still a work in progress.
I hope that by the time you read this it is running more smoothly. (Our visit was four weeks after opening for the season. When I spoke to Calandri some days later to clarify facts for this review, he asked for my concerns. He intended to bring these up at one of his daily meetings with staff.)
The best dining experiences I’ve had, from casual to extravagant, have a coherence among the food, atmosphere and service. Expectations based on the type of establishment allow for understanding and an appropriate flow.
Smoother hospitality at Ports of Italy would translate into a fully pleasurable unity and a more relaxing evening. Well-intentioned but disjointed service on the night we visited was the only thing holding the restaurant back from overall excellence.
Nancy Heiser is a freelance writer and editor. She can be reached at: