March 4, 2010

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— Inexpensive Italian classics are a draw at the Corner Room, the third of restaurateur Harding Lee Smith's three Portland restaurant ''rooms.''

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John Patriquin/Staff Photographer; Thursday,Sept.24, 2009. Darcy Smith serves a create your own pizza and two panini's at The Corner Room in Portland for T&T.

Smith's Front Room on Munjoy Hill and the Grill Room just doors away both have a history of crowds. At the Corner Room, which opened in early July, the pasta is mixed, extruded and boiled into a state of toothsome resilience. A dish such as bucatini all'Amatriciana makes it clear why this room, too, fills up with customers.

We are like the shepherds of Abruzzo on the Adriatic coast of central Italy, consoled by this spicy pasta dish after watching over their flocks in high meadows. Living in an economic landscape of precipitous declines, we need some plated courage to face the future.

Here's more: Cotechino ($13), part of an appetizer that is a meal in itself, is a thick pink sausage traditionally enjoyed on New Year's Day and made with pork, cloves and nutmeg. Three browned slices are served under two fried eggs, both on top of the creamiest, fluffiest polenta in Portland.

The polenta is made with milk, water, cheese and butter along with corn meal, according to our perfectly attentive server, who asked the kitchen what went into it. And, while delicious, that polenta presents one problem at the Corner Room, where some dishes can be simply too rich.

Foccacia had so much olive oil in its making that its base was saturated. It was gilding the lily, frosting the frosting, to dip the oily stuff into the olive oil in the dish on the table -- not that we didn't. Rosemary and salt flavored that spongy bread.

A second problem, encountered in a side dish of garlicky wilted spinach ($4) served with a heck of a lot of green-tinted olive oil, was too much salt.

The bartenders will be happy to relieve any thirst you might have.

Head bartender John Myers, recent subject of an affectionate profile in Down East Magazine, is Portland's master of historic cocktails. His champagne cocktail ($9) fuses bitter Aperol and Angostura with a sugar cube that slowly dissolves in the base of a champagne flute filled with Prosecco. Curved over the rim, a twist of orange peel added its own bitterness tempered by a sweet scent.

The wine is less exciting than the cocktails and pricey by the glass. Trappolini Orvieto ($10) from Campania, Italy, refreshing and crisp, is poured from a little carafe that holds four ounces. Baroncini Messere Chianti ($8) is a light-bodied, mild red. A larger carafe of each, about three glasses, is $19 and $18 respectively, a better deal. Bottles are even less expensive, $27 and $22 for the two mentioned here.

The elegant room holds fluted columns supporting a floating cornice, which sheds light on the ceiling above it. Wood booths are fitted with ornamental cushions made with pretty silky piping or brocade. But happy diners can make the room loud.

Salads favor mild dressings, and when they flavor bitter greens ($8), radicchio and arugula as in my version -- tossed with walnuts, raisins and pickled onion with grated Pecorino -- that was the best choice.

In a salad of mild arugula and milder goat cheese setting off cubed red and pink beets ($8), a little red wine vinegar could have added a welcome dimension.

Served with garlicky aioli and tomato sauce were pale gold rings and squiggly tentacles of small squid ($10). They alone needed a touch of salt, just at hand in a little bowl, along with ground pepper in its own miniature dish.

The bucatini all'Amatriciana uses hollow tubes of pasta to lighten a sauce built on sautéed guanciale -- cured pork cut from the jowls simmered with red pepper, garlic and red sauce and sharpened with grated Romano. Perfectly balanced, the dish reveals the Italian genius for simple greatness.

Other pasta dishes might reveal the same thing, this time with wild boar ragu or served alla carbonara or with sausage.

The secondi or second course list, served from 5 p.m., comes traditionally after the pasta, but most include a starchy side like beans, polenta or potatoes. Veal saltimbocca ($15), two lightly browned cutlets of tender veal in a light salty sauce made with Madeira and veal stock, wore a bit of prosciutto and fontina. Acrid fried sage was an edible ornament to avoid. Polenta offered its milky contrast.

One pizza, heaped with arugula and gossamer slices of prosciutto ($16), required rearranging as we pulled the crisp slices out from under the fresh leaves and then tried to pile them on top as they scattered with each crunchy bite. Abundant garlic and Grana Padano flavored the crust. The margarita with tomato, basil and mozzarella and any other pizza would no doubt be easier to eat.

Panna cotta ($6) had a grainy texture in its creaminess; three fat blackberries seemed disappointingly little fruit to go alongside. But fig and almond cake ($6) was superb, its texture tender and coarse and full of bits of dried fig. The pleasantly dry Italian cake is surely best enjoyed with coffee, like the cappuccino ($3.25) and decaf ($2.25) -- tasting too good to be decaffeinated -- that perfectly ended one of two dinners.

N.L. English is a Portland freelance writer and food critic who dines anonymously. It is the policy of the Maine Sunday Telegram to visit a restaurant twice if the first visit results in a disappointing dining experience. Visit English's Web site,

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