Editor’s Note: While our search for a new restaurant critic for the Maine Sunday Telegram was open, an unexpected would-be critic threw his hat into the ring (his puck onto the ice?). We decided to take him up on it, so as we finalize our choice for a Dine Out critic, we’ve invited Portland Pirates goalie Mike McKenna to guest review a meal at Paciarino in Portland.

You might know me from my day job as a goaltender for the Portland Pirates … you know … the guy who willingly steps in front of 100 mph disks of frozen rubber. But away from the arena, I’ve developed a passion for food, one that has grown exponentially since I arrived in Portland. I get help from TV shows like “Top Chef,” and a subscription to Food & Wine magazine, but I freely admit I’m still in the infancy of my culinary knowledge and expertise.

Still, living in a city as food-oriented as Portland can be transformative: The wealth and diversity of dining options is world-class. Now in my third full season here as a player, I’ve made a point of embracing the scene and all it has to offer.

In his third year as a goalie for the Portland Pirates, Mike McKenna has made a point of embracing the city’s wealth of dine-out options.

In his third year as a goalie for the Portland Pirates, Mike McKenna has made a point of embracing the city’s wealth of dine-out options. Press Herald file/Derek Davis

So when I saw last month that the Maine Sunday Telegram was searching for a new restaurant critic, I tweeted the paper and made a suggestion: “Restaurant critic? Guys…I’m here…win / win for everyone!” Food Editor Peggy Grodinsky tweeted back (something along the lines of “um, are you joking?”), and I told her that while I’d no plans to quit my day job, I’d be happy to give it a try between games while she searched for a permanent critic.

That’s how I found myself several weeks later at Paciarino, the long-running eatery located at the edge of the Old Port on Fore Street, pen and fork in hand. “Italiani Autentici” may be the motto, but the word “tradition” summed up my experience.

The layout of Paciarino lends itself to curious eyes: The open kitchen is noticeably large, while a square-shaped bar overlooks both the prep area and dining room. It’s not ideal, as seating is somewhat cramped both at the bar and in the dining area. You won’t be able to bring an entire youth hockey team in, but it works well enough for the intended audience of couples and small parties. Pastel colors and light wood create a mildly rustic atmosphere, which is accentuated by historic photos of Italy.

The menu reads like a concise tutorial in Italian cuisine: Dishes are described by flavors, ingredients and historical tidbits. Paciarino is pasta-centric, with pasta comprising nearly three-fourths of the menu. The pasta and the sauces are all made from scratch each and every day from a combination of local and imported Italian ingredients.

Being a professional athlete comes with certain expectations: Train hard, eat healthy, take care of your body. And for years, “carbo-loading” was a term thrown around with athletes. Ten or 15 years ago, a large plate of pasta from Paciarino would have been considered an ideal pregame meal for an athlete. Not so much today: Protein has come on strong, and refined, simple carbohydrates have largely been replaced by complex. So I consider a meal at Paciarino a bit of a “cheat” – the sort of meal I enjoy once a week in order to keep my sanity.

The restaurant makes a nearly flawless rendition of Lasagne alla Bolognese ($21.50). Americans know what to expect: copious amounts of ricotta cheese. But not so fast. At Paciarino, it’s prepared in a traditional manner using bechamel, a thick white sauce made from butter, flour and milk. A brick-sized portion is served layered with fresh noodles, melted Parmesan cheese and a thick, meaty Bolognese sauce rich with slow-cooked flavor. A credit to the bechamel (and most certainly someone’s Nonna), the result is luxuriously creamy and delicious. Considering the heft of the dish, it’s probably the last thing I would ever want to eat directly before playing a game. Insert picture of me sprawled on the ice in a food coma here.

In stark contrast, the athlete-friendly Organic Italian Salad ($7.50) is made from fresh greens topped with cherry tomatoes, red onion slices and a dusting of Parmesan cheese. Dressed lightly with extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar, the greens were allowed to shine rather than drown. Unfortunately, the red onion was cut too thick – instead of being a good team player, it dominated the salad.

Ravioli Ricotta e Spinaci alla Bolognese

Ravioli Ricotta e Spinaci alla Bolognese

Paciarino bills its Ravioli Ricotta e Spinaci alla Bolognese ($18.99) as “one of our most popular.” The ravioli are stuffed with ricotta cheese, sauteed spinach and Parmesan and flavored with garlic and nutmeg. Then they’re topped with house Bolognese sauce, dusted with more Parmesan, and finished with a drizzle of imported Sicilian extra-virgin olive oil. Some Americanized Italian restaurants smother their pastas in red sauce, but Paciarino astutely exercises restraint: The fresh ingredients that make up the ravioli stuffing are the center of attention, with the Bolognese providing just the right amount – and no more – of meaty contrast. It’s a well-executed dish, and I can see why it’s popular.

Equally good was the Tris di Bruschette ($7.50), Paciarino’s take on the quintessential Italian appetizer. Again, the fresh produce took center stage: An herby pomodoro showcased locally grown basil; a more traditional chunky tomato mixture was equally refreshing; and a delicious garlic oil rounded out the trio of bruschette toppings.

A wise restaurateur once told me the true test of a pasta restaurant is its simplest dish: There’s nowhere for the chef to hide. At Paciarino, a mostly satisfying dish of Spaghetti Aglio Olieo e Peperoncino ($14.99) – spaghetti with olive oil, garlic and hot peppers – fits that description. Next time, I might like a little less heat (for my wife) and an extra dose of garlic (for me). And while spaghetti is traditional, and it was properly served al dente, I think the additional chew of a thicker noodle would make the dish more interesting.

Despite nutritional guilt setting in – not to mention a loaf of fresh Italian bread, two appetizers and three entrees – my wife and I decided to attempt dessert (she was 9 months pregnant at the time, so eating for two). Practice the next morning would be a tough one, I knew, so I’d be able to work off the extra calories. Or at least that’s how I justified dessert.

Boccondivino

Boccondivino

Paciarino’s homemade tiramisu ($8.39), served individually in tidy glass jars, was superb. But the real showstopper came in the form of Boccondivino ($8.39), or “God’s Bite.” The restaurant soaks crisp, quarter-size amaretti cookies in dark roasted coffee, then sandwiches them together with mascarpone cream. “Crazy good,” my wife said. In a sugar-induced stupor, I mumbled something back. I can’t remember if it was actually words or just sounds. These cookies are that good.

If you are looking for innovation or trendy techniques, cross Paciarino off your list. But if you crave a nice plate of traditionally crafted pasta, along with a good glass of Italian red, this is your spot. No matter what your mustachioed, flannel-wearing, must-eat-the-next-big-thing foodie friend says, the world still needs restaurants that embrace the past.