No sooner had he settled into a corner banquette at Vignola Cinque Terre, then my guest revealed that he’s always been indifferent to the place. Talk about bad timing! But as our dinner progressed, from a stellar crispy fritto misto ($9) to delicately light potato gnocchi ($8) and encompassing a handful of other dishes – some excellent, a few less so – I could see that he was finally beginning to appreciate the place. As for me, I always have. And I was glad to return to what is still one of the most urbane dining rooms in Portland.
In 2006, Vignola was one of the first restaurants in the city to invest big money on interior decor. The über-stylish restaurant opened to critical acclaim, next door to Cinque Terre, its flourishing five-year-old sister. Portland’s dining scene was just then coming into its own. Cinque Terre served a menu of fine Northern Italian cooking that made the restaurant the place to go for fine Italian cuisine. The gracious two-story space, housed in a converted carriage house on Wharf Street, was also beautiful, with candy-stripe-fabric-covered banquettes, starched white linen tablecloths and a good-looking service staff that seemed hand-picked by Central Casting.
Chef and now co-owner Lee Skawinski and co-proprietor Dan Kory created an elegant menu for the original Cinque Terre – beautifully crafted house-made pastas and inventive interpretations of Emilia Romagna-inspired cuisine. They were “locavores” before the word was even coined. Then and now, Kory’s Grand View Farm in Greene supplied most of the vegetables, and most of the meats. The fish and poultry were, and are, sourced locally, too.
In 2012, the two restaurants merged. It was a bold move for this pair of related restaurants to tinker with their respective identities and their loyal followings. Why mess with success? But the merger has apparently worked, making for a more efficient operation, according to the management. The menus of both – the casual trattoria food of Vignola and the more haute fare of Cinque Terre – have been combined at Vignola Cinque Terre to offer a range of Italian specialties from pizzas, pasta and grilled items to salumeria and elegant Northern Italian cuisine.
As part of this transformation, Vignola Cinque Terre added an open kitchen between the two dining rooms, with a chef’s table directly across from it. The Vignola space is still nearly as striking as when it opened, though the lustrous olive-green fabric covering the banquettes has been replaced by dull-brown leather facings. The bar is still very popular, and the coolly dressy dining room remains a stunner with its high ceilings and clever light fixtures made from green-glass wine bottles, which hang from the ceiling like mobiles. The view, through big plate-glass windows overlooking the period architecture along Dana and Wharf streets, portrays a mise-en-scene of cosmopolites on the town. In back, the old Cinque Terre space remains mostly as it was. Wherever you choose to sit, you’ll enjoy the excellent cooking of chef Skawinski and sous chef Chris Geer. The two regularly visit Italy in search of new ideas to bring back to the restaurant.
In a meal with many high points, some of the first courses were disappointing. A seared slice of house-made pork terrine ($8) was dry. It was saved, however, by an accompanying ragu of warm spring vegetable and aïoli. The chickpea fritters ($6) were tasty, though not quite crisp enough. The fritto misto was the standout. Snow-white morsels of monkfish were dipped in batter and deep fried, served with Meyer lemon aïoli and garnished with a pretty mix of shredded red and green cabbages and pea shoot tendrils. We mixed a dab of that aïoli with the chickpea fritter garnish of garlic confit – delicious. It gave the otherwise underwhelming aïoli some zip.
Pasta is the true test of an Italian restaurant, and Vignola Cinque Terre passed with flying colors. Two pastas we ordered ($18 and $20 respectively) were flawless, perfectly crafted and perfectly al dente. Spaghetti strands were cut thick like bucatini, sauced with a fragrant tomato ragu and mixed with house-made prosciutto; the tender puffs of potato gnocchi fonduta, with bread crumbs and garlic, lolled in the opulent four-cheese sauce, which had the texture of the finest cream.
The restaurant maintained its stride with carne misto ($23). The luscious, dense beef meatballs, gutsy log of braised beef bracciole and slices of spicy house-made sausage were bound together in an earthy porcini mushroom ragu, adding up to a faultless rendition of this taverna-style dish.
We’d eaten well – six dishes, several of them hearty, fortified by excellent Negroni cocktails ($10) and a glass each of a complex Montepulciano d’Abruzzo ($8). It was a substantial meal. Nonetheless, we managed to summon up the wherewithal to explore pastry chef Emily DeLois’ dessert menu. Her orange chiffon cake, a moist-crumbed round of yellow cake, came sitting on a pool of Grand Marnier syrup and flecked with candied pistachios. The cake was filled and topped with lavish whipped mascarpone – a delightful conclusion to a mostly excellent meal.
“Did Vignola Cinque Terre pass muster for you this time?” I asked my guest as we readied to leave. He nodded an emphatic yes.
John Golden, who lives in Portland, writes about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for local and national publications. He can be reached at: [email protected]