March 11, 2010

Garofalo's does Italy (and Maine, too) with originality

— SCARBOROUGH — Garofalo's Restaurant in the Higgins Beach Inn has opened for the season, and it's a wonderful place to enjoy a first-rate dinner that can be followed by a walk on the beach, one short block away.

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Derek Davis/Staff Photographer: Garofalo's restaurant at Higgins Beach Inn in Scarborough. Photographed Thursday, June 4, 2009.

The old-fashioned dining room is the unlikely stage for an adventurous Italian menu, with perfectly familiar Maine standbys ready to enjoy as well.

After tasting the juicy, fat fried oysters and the sauteed vegetables that included fennel, we were smitten. When the dining room host, Diane Garofalo (who owns the inn with her husband, Bob Westburg), said the light and perfectly chewy potato gnocchi were house-made -- we already knew they were intoxicating -- there was nothing to do but relax and enjoy.

The main dining room has white-painted trim, wooden columns and sprinkler pipes flanking a central white beam. The tables are draped with first purple and then white tablecloths. Wallpaper with pretty drawing of herbs and onions covers the walls between the glass-fronted cabinets full of wine glasses.

A porch along the side of the main room holds tables for two beside windows on the immaculate lawn.

The three-story inn got its start more than 100 years ago, growing into a summer resort that by the 1950s charged $35 a week for a room and three meals a day, according to the inn's Web site.

The prices are higher now, but no doubt there were none of the pasta and seafood dishes on that 1950s menu -- and no generosity with garlic and olive oil or any role for hot peppers, which today infuse sausages and meatballs and the cream sauce of Desert Fire Pasta ($21), made with shrimp and andouille.

Another dish, the Meatballs from Hell ($8), holds both jalapenos and dried habeneros, and mussels from the same list ($11) can be still be ordered fra diavolo, in a spicy sauce, even though that is not on this year's menu.

For anyone arriving primed for lobster and fried seafood, never fear. A whole table of older dinner guests were eagerly tying on their bibs on the night of our visit to prepare for the onslaught of lobster juices.

A list of featured wines, even with the addition of house wines, seems too short. Frei Brothers 2006 Reserve Pinot Noir ($9) from the Russian River Valley of California, nearly filled a short-stemmed glass. Dense with black cherry and raspberry and smoothly tannic, it was easy to enjoy, but the meals here seem to call for a wider range of wines by the glass than the six on that list, one of which, Zenato Pinot Grigio ($6.50) from Italy, was not available.

A longer list of wines sold by the bottle is the solution for those happy to share, with more than 40 to choose from.

The appetizer, faro salad ($7), is a well-loved lesson from a Tuscan cooking school. The sharply flavored mixture of farro -- a chewy, nutty Italian grain, garlic, leeks, pine nuts, Parmigiano Reggiano and basil oil -- is both aromatic and creamy.

The fried oysters ($9), with nine on my square plate accompanied by mayonnaise mixed with an Asian red pepper paste, married the delights of crunch and tenderness, turning one patron at the table into a new convert. A salad of sliced cherry tomatoes in a good vinaigrette made the plate even better.

An antipasto plate ($14) named for Dominic, Diane Garofalo's late father, contains provolone- and prosciutto-stuffed peppers, feta-stuffed cherry peppers (both house-made), crispy prosciutto, tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, Parmegiano Reggiano, pine nuts and capocola -- all topped with olive oil and balsamic reduction, perfect to share.

For dinner, the wide shallow bowl of gnocchi and sausage ($19) -- this week's version was jalapeno sausage, perfect with the rich cream sauce -- is made even more savory with pieces of thinly sliced prosciutto. Sun-dried tomatoes and sugar snap peas added color and some crunch. It's the kind of dish that might be a little too irresistible.

A big hunk of duck breast ($23), rosy and pink if not the rare I had ordered, was nicely sauced with dried cranberries and fig, and crusted by crisp skin. Asiago mashed potatoes were salty and excellent. A pile of tender fragrant slices of fennel, zucchini, broccoli rabe and red peppers was abundantly flavored with sauteed garlic, chopped parsley and olive oil, and utterly seductive.

Short ribs ($19) and chicken Toscana ($19) are more dishes augmented by the skills of Dan Richards, a Johnson & Wales University graduate. Short ribs are cooked in a veal stock, and served with a reduction of the pan juices cooked down with rosemary, garlic and peppercorns, Richards said. All the stocks are made from scratch.

Tiramisu al limone ($6), the inn's version of that Italian indulgence, wore a mop of lemon zest, microplaned on top as it's ordered, according to Richards, with smooth mascarpone, heavy cream and tender, limoncello-soaked ladyfingers as good as they come.

A footed goblet of vanilla ice cream with a modest chocolate syrup ($3.50) is perfectly suited for youngsters still averse to the pleasures of anything bittersweet.

N.L. English is a Portland freelance writer and the author of ''Chow Maine: The Best Restaurants, Cafes, Lobster Shacks and Markets on the Coast.'' Visit English's Web site, www.chowmaineguide.com.

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