Friday March 29, 2013 | 01:00 AM

In search of the esential  Italian-American kitchen with its classic red sauce, Portland restaurants, for the most part, offer  benign examples of the genre.    

 

For dining options, Portland's duo of Espo’s , Maria's  and Casa Novello ,in Westbrook, are keepers of the flame, the remains of the day as far as Portland’s once vibrant Italian community existed.  
 
 
Americanized Italian cooking has evolved over the last half century into those very staples on the menus of pizza restaurants,  trattorias and pasta palaces.  Here is  where lasagna, spaghetti and meatballs, various takes on chicken, eggplant and veal Parmesan to renditions of chicken cacciatore and shrimp scampi are kitchen stalwarts.
 
 
 
 On two-for-one night (Mondays) at Casa Novello it's a packed house
 
 
To assess our local Italian kitchens, I recently ventured to Espo's and Casa Novello  having not been to either in years.  After several dinners at each, I think Casa Novello  has the edge, though it’s an  assessment  as relevant as the titmouse.  
 
 
The dining room at Espo's, tries to look like a trattoria but is very much an overblown pizzzeria 
 
 
Portion size at both places is excessive. At Espo’s consider their meatballs and spaghetti. Weighing in at a pound each the balls are so large they  seem afflicted with elephantitis--a dish with chutzpah if one should exist at all.  But they’re not bad tasting: rich, with a creamy texture and  nice flavor.  It also explains why the stack of Styrofoam containers are prominently displayed on a nearby shelf.  They're for diners to take home leftovers because no one other than a glutton gone beserk could finish what’s on those plates.
 
 
 
Espo's giant meatballs over spaghetti 
 
 
 
Espo's Styrofoam container counter waiting for the leftovers
 
 
Another dish I tried there was the lasaga.  This one is billed as having five cheeses with sausage, pepperoni and ground sirloin.  The only discernable cheese flavor was the mountain of mozzarella splayed over the top and melted in the pizza oven. But it was tasty.  Here, too, this portion could have fed a conga line.
 
 
 Chicken Parmigiano at Espo's 
 
 
What about the sauce?  That bright red staple of Italian-American fare?  I found it a bit raw tasting without the finesse of flavor that comes from long, slow simmering of the tomato base.   
 
And so much of it!  It’s  on everything.   
 
The other dish I tried was Espo’s version of chicken Parmigiano.  Here were two overly thick cutlets (don't’ Portland chefs own  meat mallets?), heavily breaded but not, thankfully, drenched in sauce or cheese. 
 
A few days later we went to Casa Novello, arriving unknowingly at their two-for-one night where all of Westbrook seemed to be dining.  Since we were willing to sit at the bar, we got seated in a few minutes. 
 
On twofer night the bar at Casa Novello is a safe haven
 
 
Our waitress was a mistress of all trades, busily ringing up tabs, making drinks, stuffing those ubiquitous Styrofoam containers with leftovers and serving her  diners at the bar, too.  She was focused but flummoxed with so much to do; needless to say service was slow. 
 
For the twofer night, the menu offered a smattering of the restaurant’s specialties.  There was no spaghetti and meatballs, but instead  we ordered lasagna and  their version of chicken Parmigiano.  
 
To start we chose the panzanella salad. This was in keeping with the enormous portions served here.  A party-size bowl was filled with at least a loaf and a half of Italian bread cut up into chunks, mixed with good olive oil, onion, cucumber and tomatoes.  The mingling of flavors was nice but the bread was not the greatest quality, no better than Silvercup.  
 
 
Casa Novello's panzanella salad has too much bread and should be saved for summer when tomatoes are local; still it was tasty enough
 
 
I swear I heard drum rolls when the entrees arrived, resplendent in their canopies of red sauce and melted mozzarella.
 
This is Casa Novello's party-platter-size chicken Parmesan--a huge portion but delicious
 
 
As if not enough food, Casa Novello's entrees come with a side of pasta, too
 
 
My parmigiano was gargantuan, the chicken cutlets as thick as T-bones; but the red sauce was very tasty and the cutlets were not overly breaded.  It came with a side a pasta with tomato sauce, which I think really gilded the busily blooming lily.
 
 
 Here is the monumental lasagna served at Casa Novello
 
 
My friend’s lasagna was rich, with lots of spices and certainly plenty of cheese.  The sauce--the same, I assume for both dishes--was very decent, though it could have been sweeter with longer simmering on the stove.  
 
 
We were tempted to have dessert because Cindy,  the chef and kitchen manager  behind the open kitchen bar, also made the desserts.  And with a face shining with assurance I could just tell that her sweets would be well worth the calories.
 
 
Cindy, the chef and kitchen manager, makes it all happen

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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.

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