July 1, 2013

Dine Out Maine: Abbondante gently coaxes diners away from typical Italian fare

By SHONNA MILLIKEN HUMPHREY

Diners lamenting the demise of Kennebunk's Grissini Italian Bistro have reason to celebrate. In its place is now Abbondante Trattoria and Bar.

click image to enlarge

Abbondante Trattoria and Bar occupies the former site of Grissini at 127 Western Ave. in Kennebunk. The space is interesting and varied, and the staff is friendly.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

DINING REVIEW

ABBONDANTE TRATTORIA AND BAR

127 Western Ave., Kennebunk. 967-2211; abbondanteme.com

****

HOURS: 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday to Thursday; 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday

PRICE RANGE: $5 to $42, with most dinner options in the $14 to $18 range

BAR: Full

CREDIT CARDS: Most major

VEGETARIAN: Yes

GLUTEN-FREE: Yes

RESERVATIONS: Yes

WHEELCHAIR ACCESSIBLE: Yes

BOTTOM LINE: If you find yourself in Kennebunk craving pasta or a good cocktail, or just looking to please a family of palates, try Abbondante. The space is pleasant and accessible, and the service is friendly and welcoming. Traditional standards are done well, and the menu offers enough choices to explore in a safe way.

Ratings follow this scale and take into consideration food, atmosphere, service and value:

* Poor  ** Fair  *** Good **** Excellent *****Extraordinary.

The Maine Sunday Telegram visits an establishment twice if the first dining experience was unsatisfactory. The reviewer dines anonymously

During our visit, Abbondante seemed to cater to an older, more affluent, casual crowd -- if, according to my flip-flop-wearing husband, casual means unbuttoning the second button on an Oxford shirt or pulling khakis straight from a dryer.

Conversely, the Abbondante wait staff has a sort of hipster appeal, inviting youth with a uniform of black T-shirts, dark-washed jeans and red Chuck Taylors. Seem incongruent? It is, a little bit.

But it also reflects the incongruity of the space. Stalwarts of the Grissini experience will appreciate the familiar presence of the floor-to-ceiling fireplace in the main dining room. For those new to the location, imagine two charming levels of outdoor wrought-iron seating, flanked by gray stone. Then step inside the dining room itself to dark walls peppered with food quotations from famous people. (For instance, "My favorite animal is steak." -- Fran Liebowitz.)

Within the dining room are a sequence of rattan-type chairs, but at tables with white linens topped with square brown butcher paper. Our corner was pleasant, and I appreciated the attention spent on cutlery.

There is a large 14-seat communal table in the center in front of an intricately carved, floor-to-ceiling wooden bar area. Above hang wagon wheel-evocative fixtures with drop light bulbs. Since Abbondante is a relatively new venture, I was told the downstairs, former Grotto space was still a "work in progress" on this night.

But that's the atmosphere. Let's discuss the food.

Italian food is often judged on a very subjective scale. Obviously, pasta can be cooked too long and sauce made too watery, but with Italian food -- maybe even more so than any other cuisine -- everyone seems to have a standard.

Whether that standard is based on childhood memory, culinary training or a long-loved cookbook, it presents itself as fixed and definitive. Maybe because of this disparity, Abbondante tries to offer something for every taste while carefully nudging some food boundaries.

The bread, both ciabatta and focaccia, arrived in a paper-lined metal basket. Instead of oil, it was served with a tangy pesto hummus. In a world of cold butter pats, this smooth alternative will appeal to diners seeking something unique but also familiar.

Craft cocktails include a Sgroppino that will what's the Italian phrase for "rock your world?" Prosecco, vodka and lemon sorbet mixed in an oversized wine glass reminded me of tiny bobbing ice floes in a contained (and potent) ocean. Order one to start the meal, and life is immediately more refreshed.

Thirteen by-the-glass wine options are listed, and bottles grouped by region (North, Central, South and Islands, and Bubbles). We chose a Scagliola Barbera "Mati" Piedmont ($9) and a Vigneri del Sole Montelpuciano Abruzzo ($7). Neither is a particularly pricey or memorable wine, but both were smooth, a bit earthy and exactly as expected -- food-friendly.

Rather than a traditional cheese plate or bruschetta (although Abbondante offers these), I suggest one of the more creative Antipasti. The Gamberi Piccanti ($12) included three sauteed shrimp in a shallow dish of creamy polenta, drizzled with a zigzag of herb garlic pesto. This was easily one of the tastiest parts of our order, with the well-made polenta offering most of the interest and texture.

Likewise, Insalata options include the usual -- Misto Verde, a Caesar and a Caprese. The Caprese ($9) was, again, as expected, with fresh mozzarella, sliced tomatoes and a spot of lettuce on a basil puree. It's a small quibble, but the menu description included grissini, yet I saw no evidence of these thin breadsticks accompanying the order. That noted, I was enjoying the experience and simply forgot to ask.

Beyond the basics, Abbondante offers a Prosciutto "salad" ($12), and if you are a fan of cured meats, try this. It's a more avant garde approach, with a paper-thin layer of prosciutto laid out on a dinner plate (curiously, sort of anchored by folding the edges of the meat around the outer lips of the plate) and decorated with a triad of sweet-sour marinated peppers and a center mound of arugula and pecorino.

Pasta options lean traditional, and Travis described one particular bite of the Gnocchi ($14) as his favorite meal moment. This particular bite combined a forkful of the house-made, pillow-soft potato pasta with a coating of tomato sauce (that actually tastes like fresh tomatoes), a small chunk of fresh mozzarella and a curl of basil.

Likewise, the Abbondante kitchen does right by the Linguini con Vongole ($21) with six super clean, grit-free, littleneck clams and enough soft, fragrant garlic to scare a family of vampires. Both pasta dishes were large, but not obscene, portions.

It would not be an American interpretation of Italian food without a portion of Tiramisu ($8), and Abbondante's version uses caramel, shaved chocolate and cocoa powder in its many creamy layers. It's more than enough to share, but if you feel a little adventurous, order another dessert and try the Vanilla Panna Cotta ($8), an olive oil cake crumble with caramel and Maine blueberries.

Finish with some coffee; it's hot and strong.

The dining experience is a nice effort. From the moment we were greeted by the hostess (who eschewed the hipster jeans for a fabulous orange sundress) to the last bite, Travis and I felt taken care of.

The staff is friendly, the space is interesting and varied, and the menu seems intent on trying to edge away from boring ideas of Italian food -- but not so much that the items are unfamiliar. It's more of a gentle coaxing.

Abbondante is welcoming and pleasant. If you are in the area and trying to please a group of palates (and generations), this is a good spot to do so.

Shonna Milliken Humphrey is a Maine freelance writer and author of the novel "Show Me Good Land."

 

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