Ten years ago, I met someone at a party whose hobby was sneaking into classes at local universities. “I take notes and do the same stuff the students do. It’s pretty much auditing. It’s my free college education,” he said. At that point, he had already been caught twice, but he couldn’t stop himself from returning for more lecture hall trespasses. “It’s a risk worth taking, because when the instructor starts talking, it’s like going on a trip with a hundred other people, but it’s all in your mind. I just wear a baseball cap and keep my head down,” he told me.

Every time I visit Tipo, on the edge of Portland’s Back Cove neighborhood, I think about that guy. Not because I’m not supposed to be there, but because someone on the Tipo staff knows what I look like – we met through a mutual friend. It had to happen sometime; in a state as small as Maine, it is probably impossible to remain anonymous 100 percent of the time. So when I visit Tipo, it’s all about covert ops: I usually sit facing away from their open pizza kitchen, never at the license-plate tiled bar, and studiously avoid making eye contact with anyone in a Tipo-branded green T-shirt who isn’t my server.

Staying incognito is a chore, especially when chef/owner Chris Gould – who also helms Central Provisions – and his team produce dishes that make you want to high-five the people who made them. Take the housemade square-cut spaghetti chitarra with chopped clams, crunchy focaccia breadcrumbs and bottarga ($14/$28). It’s impossible to be anywhere near this plate without flaring your nostrils to steal a steamy, saline inhale of the ocean’s own breath.

Or the housemade garganelli with lamb ragu ($18), a plate that, one-by-one, upends all your expectations as you consume it. First goes the traditional ratio of noodles to meat; this is a dish that is primarily about tender strands of slow-braised North Star Sheep Farm lamb, with striated tubes of rolled garganelli singing backup. “The pasta has such a ‘tooth’ to it, you don’t want too much of it,” Gould explained. Then comes the sauce, unexpectedly tart and fruity from orange zest and bits of dried apricot plumped in dry Falanghina wine. Even the finishing touches, fine, anise-scented wisps of tarragon and barely melting grains of wonderfully salty Pecorino Sardo cheese, seem like they belong on a different, more summery dish. It’s unorthodox, but it all simply works.

Pizzas are more conventional, but every bit as good. In part, that’s the result of a research trip to Naples, Italy, where Gould, his chef de cuisine Mike Smith, and their families sampled 17 pizzas in 24 hours. Upon their return to Maine, they methodically tested out dough recipes to allow them to take advantage of the Vulcan temperatures in the Le Panyol wood-burning oven left behind by Borealis Bakery, the space’s former tenant. “We spent a week trying three different flours, 2-percent increments of hydration from 50 to 75 percent and three different mixing methods. It ended up being 90 different doughs, and we ate all of them,” Gould said.

Their obsessive, carb-fueled experimentation paid off, as evidenced by Tipo’s excellent Margherita pie, featuring a crisp, stippled bottom crust topped with fresh mozzarella, basil and tomato ($10). Or the perfectly charred cauliflower pizza ($12), layered with musky shiitakes, maitakes and shaved button mushrooms, then daubed with smudges of ricotta and brightened by a drizzling of tangy, balsamic-esque saba (vin cotto). Better still, add a farm egg to the center for an extra dollar and give the pizzaioli a chance to demonstrate how to slide a raw pizza into a 950 degree F oven and pull out a gorgeously blistered pie with a creamy, barely-set yolk just a minute or two later. It’s a remarkable feat, and it happens dozens of times every night.

That same wood-fired oven is used to get plenty of color on local radishes, carrots, beets and salsify ($9) – all roasted whole, then cooked with olive oil and anchovy in a regular oven and finished with fresh flat-leaf parsley and mint right before service. On the cusp of spring, with a glass of gently astringent Puglian Salice Salentino ($9) from the all-Italian wine list, it’s the sort of dish that (almost) makes me wish we had a few more weeks of winter left.

Desserts are solid, if perhaps not yet up to the high standard set by the rest of the menu. One visit’s whipped ricotta-filled zeppole ($7) were crunchy on the outside, subtly spicy from a dusting of long pepper sugar, and still warm, but felt dense and heavy – my dinner guest and I could not finish more than one apiece. The chocolate hazelnut tart ($9) I ate on another visit was better, with an egg yolk-and-gelatin-thickened ganache, candied hazelnuts and stewed blood orange to balance out the filling’s richness. However, the shortbread crust – made with a 50:50 blend of all-purpose and hazelnut flours – was too thick and crumbly, too rustic for an otherwise elegant dessert. I spotted a couple at another table excavating the filling and leaving most of the pastry behind.

Tatiana Ciccone mixes a drink behind the bar at Tipo. Staff photo by Derek Davis

Maybe it’s smarter to go for one of Tipo’s cocktails in lieu of dessert. The foamy, layered Il Maglione ($11), whose name translates as “the sweater,” is a good option. Lemony, full of herbal aromas like fennel and saffron from Strega, and served cold in a coupe glass, it’s a bit like a liquid version of a meringue pie. Or my favorite, the Il Moto ($10), slightly sweetened by Amaro Montegro and Cocchi di Torino (a type of vermouth), and layered with gauzy, boozy fruit from plum bitters and calvados.

As much as I enjoy an Il Moto, it’s a cocktail I hesitate to order, because Tipo’s front-of-house staff is an observant bunch, and the server who has waited on my table during three of my four visits has started to remember my drink preferences. For someone trying to blend into the crowd, that could spell disaster. But despite the danger of being spotted, I just can’t resist coming back. So I keep my head down and my back to the kitchen – it’s a risk worth taking.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

Tipo, a new Italian restaurant in Portland’s Back Cove neighborhood, has a lot going for it. Staff photo by Derek Davis