Wednesday, March 12, 2014
It has not taken me long to perceive that there’s little pleasure left in Italian American cooking, except for the occasional well wrought red sauce, cacciatore or sundry Parmigiano.
In our midst, however, Portland still has a few of these citadels left. Maria’s and Espo’s in Portland and Anjon’s and Casa Novello in Scarborough and Westbrook respectively are culinary dinosaurs as déclassé as crepe suzettes.
So that when Vignola opened in 2006 on the heels of its well established, critically acclaimed sister restaurant, Cinque Terre, next door, and under the tutelage of its long time chef and co-proprietor Lee Skawinski, it presented a stirringly bold new look. Its professionally designed, dramatic space on Dana Street became the best looking dining space in town.
Cinque Terre in its earlier days
Vignola Cinque Terre bar
While I loved the new Vignola at the time I thought the menu was a little mixed up. As an osteria, it lacked signature pasta dishes. These were reserved for Cinque Terre’s menu. In its stead Vignola offered an excellent array of meats, pizzas and sundry salami.
When the two restaurants became one and the same last year, renamed Vignola Cinque Terre, it did so with little fanfare.
Walking into Vignola Cinque Terre one evening about a year ago for the first time in a long while, I was unaware of the change. Vignola was booked solid so I was shown to “the back room” in the old Cinque Terre space.
Fast forward to present time the Cinque Terre is in the clouds and the two menus are now under one congenial roof.
Vignola Cinque Terre dining today
It shows, however, a split personality again. The old Cinque Terre space--an architecturally difficult carriage house room that has been redecorated several times in the last decade--is begging to look as snappy as its front-room sibling.
But the fact remains the new iteration of Vignola Cinque Terre is still the only reputable eatery in Greater Portland offering creative haute locavore Italian fare, and I’m glad to count it back on my list of favorite eateries.
Always a glittering crowd at Vignola Cinque Terre
The silky olive-green covered banquettes are as comfortable and luxurious as ever. And the room glows under a saucy patina of decorative lights made out of wine bottles that hang like stars adrift in a glittering galaxy.
Altogether, this is Portland’s shining example of sophisticated interior-décor--a big-city look with New York-style urbanity.
At a recent dinner we set out to sample dishes indicative of its new menu. We chose to start with an antipasti platter, followed by an entrée each of pizza and roast pork.
But the kitchen in its kindness sent out a few surprises for us to sample. The unexpected feast started with Winter Point oysters.
Cold, sweet Winter Points with pomegranate, apple horseradish mignonette
I like my oysters without distracting mignonettes. But these were beautifully touched with an apple horseradish mignonette flecked with pomegranate seeds. This was one of the few times I enjoyed oysters embellished with anything other than their natural juices.
Then we were presented with earthily delicious salt-cod fritters set over the creamiest polenta joined by a red-cabbage-slaw. This was a hearty, soulful dish.
Salt cod fritters
By the time the antipasti arrived we were nearly full but couldn’t’ resist carrying on. With various cured meats, a Ribollita of vegetables, mushroom risotto and pickled vegetables it was a superb platter that could have been a meal in itself.
The pizza that my dinner mate ordered was comprised of Berkshire pork meatballs, provolone, caramelized onions and San Marzano tomatoes. The crust was ultra thin and crisp and the toppings were far better than those from other self-professed Portland pizza spinmeisters.
Pizza with Berkshire pork meatballs
My cider-brined pork loin roasted in a cast iron skillet was another winner. It was served atop a crush of lentils, roasted squash moistened with an apricot mostarda and aged balsamic.
Cider-brine pork with lentils
This unexpected feast was entirely satisfying, one of the better meals in Portland in recent memory.
Just to gild the lily, we shared a dessert that was a visual masterpiece of flavor and embellishment. It was a small, luscious sweet run-glazed cake with caramel sauce and a dazzling spun sugar crown.
Rum cake with caramel sauce
What more can I say other than Vignola Cinque Terre remains a superb dining venue in Portland, a tour de force that deserves, without reservation, all the accolades that one can muster.
John Golden has written about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for Downeast magazine, the Boston Globe, Cottages and Gardens magazine, Gourmet magazine, Cuisine magazine, the New York Times and the New York Post.
In his highly opinionated blog, John reports on his experiences dining out all over Maine and his visits with food personalities, farmers and farmers’ markets throughout the state.