Portland may not have a Little Italy like New York or Boston, but it certainly has a slice of the old country with chef Lee Skawinski’s Vignola Cinque Terre.
Even the stroll down Wharf Street, with its precarious cobblestones and lively foot traffic, makes for a more authentic experience. The entrance of the restaurant on Dana Street is draped with ivy, and the tall, narrow windows frame an energetic bar and dining room.
In spring 2012, neighboring restaurants Vignola and Cinque Terre reopened as one after a five-month renovation. While the merger created some confusion over what patrons would call the duo, the renovation ultimately provided additional seating, a more extensive menu and a vibe that’s equal parts rustic (Vignola) and refined (Cinque Terre).
The dining room is open and bright, with wine bottle light fixtures imported from Italy dangling overhead. By 6 p.m., the bar was nearly full, and the phone was ringing with people calling for dinner reservations.
A party of seven was already seated, and a few smaller parties had ordered or were well into a meal of steaming house-made pasta or a plate of sauteed local flounder.
Just a year after the ambitious union, Vignola Cinque Terre won awards for best wine, which is a testament to the careful thought and skill that Skawinski spends on his hand-selected wine choices.
Bottles range from $32 to $120, but from 5 to 6 p.m. on weekdays, prices are half off. This is just one of the few ways Skawinski seems to be encouraging people to try his esteemed collection.
The wine menu also offers 3-ounce pours for any of the wines by the glass, which is a significantly cheaper option. For example, the Txakolina Getariako rose by the glass is usually $10, but a smaller pour is offered for $5.50.
It’s this kind of creative price point-shaping that makes it hard to stay mad at a place for not participating in happy hour or serving cheap beer like PBR.
However, the beer list is crafted carefully to reflect local and regional brews and to stay true to the Italian vision. The menu is divided into sections (a thoughtful and appreciated detail), such as New England Beers, Italian Beers, Small Beers and Big Beers. The Italian beers were unfamiliar but tempting, albeit pricier (the cheapest option was $10), while the beers on draft boasted the more recognizable Allagash and company.
The cocktail list is a collection of 10 alluringly named concoctions, such as the Acadian Fizz (gin, St. Germaine and muddled lime topped with sparkling wine), which ended up being the bartender’s recommendation, as it was her original creation at a previous bar.
While refreshing and pretty (served in a wine glass), it was essentially a gin and tonic with a punch more acidity that wasn’t worth $10. Or was it $11? The prices weren’t listed.
Of course, the absence of price on one item can lead any diner to order a little something extra.
And there’s plenty extra if you’re looking at the cheese and snack list. A whole page of the menu is devoted to cheese, and by the looks of it, Skawinski spends as much time on this as he does on wine. Or with bar snacks like the marinated olives with sun-dried tomatoes, hot peppers and a zesty splash of lemon for $6.
The expression “you get what you pay for” rings true for Vignola Cinque Terre — but in a good way. Yes, it’s more upscale, and maybe the typical cheaper beer options or happy hour deals aren’t available, but the extra dollars will be spent on service, atmosphere and overall attention to ingredients and detail.
Skawinski and his team travel often to Italy to gain knowledge and inspiration so that patrons can walk through the doors and truly have a transformative experience.
Claire Jeffers is a freelance writer.