Friday April 12, 2013 | 06:00 AM

Enio’s is not another  high-minded eateriy dishing up the latest fetishistic calling cards of  tasting menus or locavore largesse.   Instead, we have the real deal. Husband and wife team, Chef Laura and husband, Robert Butler, for years set the standard in Portland for rustic Northern Italian fare.  They held sway at Rachel’s Grill in the Old Port and then at Rachel’s L’ Osteria in Rosemont. 

Many Portlanders were heartbroken when the Butlers took off for Vero Beach, Florida, where Laura inherited a family house.  That didn’t last long, spanning a couple of years enduring an idyllic setting on the intercoastal. The “sweaty summers” (Bob’s words) in the land of golfing nonagenarians “was intense” and “the restaurants were awful,” Bob shared with me.

Open only a few weeks, Enio’s already has a big following.  I went there several nights ago and was immediately taken, too. Laura’s cooking is better than ever.  The food has oomph, with a zaftig manipulation of flavors swooning with zest and soul.

Enio's has one of the best selections of Italian wines in Greater Portland, and it's what you see as soon as you walk in

All this culinary drama unfolds in the modest storefront that used to be the Buttered Biscuit— the yummy mummy take-out haven on Cottage Rd., where Cape and SP residents carted away tasty family meals.

The new space, however, is unrecognizable from its last iteration.  You enter a long, narrow room that’s utterly simplistic in style but very inviting. The tables and counters have the luster of rustic finishes. And the first thing you see is the bar with shelves of Bob’s great Italian wine picks on display.  The bar seats 6 with comfortable high-back stools.  Then along the windows facing the street is another dining counter with 12 seats.  At each end are two groupings of tables for two and four.

Seating along the street facing windows is very comfortable; tables for two and four in the rear

More seating at the bar, in the rear and along another the wall of windows

Bob’s other job is to run the front of the house.  As we pulled up to take our seats at the bar I asked him why their restaurants never have a full bar? 

“I love a good martini,” he admitted, “but wine is much easier. "

You don’t see Laura too often because she is cooking alone in the kitchen with only a dishwasher in the back. 

The food—well, it’s bigger than life: rich, bold flavors in a cozy Mama Mia style of Italian country cooking. 

A cozy seating arrangement for two or four

The menu is arranged in six sections.  Start with any of the Jars w/Grilled Bread and you’ll be quite pleased indeed.  We began by sharing a smoked fish mousse ($7) with capers and red onion.  The house-made bread is grilled and slathered with a delicious pesto on which to put this delicious smoked fish spread.

The smoked fish mousse is accompanied by Laura's wonderful house-made crostini

Little Bites include such dishes as shrimp with garlic and lemon aioli or bruschetta with Broadbent ham, buffalo-milk cheese and pickled fennel. 

We skipped these bites and went for the (hardly) small plates:  an arugula salad capped with crispy pancetta, caramelized onions and pecorino and lemon vinaigrette ($12).

A beautifully composed arugula salad with crisp pancetta and caramelized onions

A signature dish, sweet potato flatbread with spinach pesto, caramelized onions and bucheron goat cheese

But we couldn’t resist another small plate:  sweet potato flatbread, also with caramelized onions, spinach pesto and bucheron goat cheese ($10).  Other choices included meatballs with ricotta and tomato meat ragu and squash tortellini, to name a few. 

A very well balanced 2009 Tuscan Sangiovese, with good bottle age, carried us through dinner beautifully

The Bowls offer the three pasta selections: a pomodoro, another with mixed herbs, garlic and Romano over angle hair and seared scallops with lobster ravioli in lobster bisque.

My friend chose a blackboard pasta special entrée of seafood over penne with mussels, scallops, shrimp and tomatoes in a robust creamy sauce.

Penne with a rich assemblage of mussels, scallopos and shrimp

The meat eater that I am I opted for a main course of braised pork served over a root vegetable hash swathed in an invigorating agrodolce  ($18).

A hearty rendition of braised pork over a vegetable hash and a delicious sweet-sour agrodolce

Throughout our meal we enjoyed a Monte Antico Sangiovese 2009 ($26) that complimented everything we ate.

We concluded the dinner with a luscious chocolate cream pie.

The perfect slice of chocolate cream pie--go for it!

What I’m especially excited to try is  Laura"s Sunday sauce.  I gave Bob my number to let me know when it’s on the menu.  Here, I have no doubt, will be the real thing, not the tepid version that so-called Italian eateries elsewhere call “sauce.”

Greater Portland is seeing many new—and good—restaurants open, instantly crowded and popular.  Enio’s, however, is a long-term keeper, one which should not be missed.
 

Enio's is located at 347 Cottage Rd., South Portland, ME  207-799-0207; no reservations, parking onsite 

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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.

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.

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