March 10, 2013

Dine Out Maine: You can't see Italy from here, but you can certainly taste it

By SHONNA MILLIKEN HUMPHREY

Like George Lazenby as James Bond, a response to Ribollita is apt to be "Right, I remember that one. It's good." Rustic, cozy and date night: These are other immediate word associations for a spot that, despite being part of Portland's old guard restaurant establishment, has flown low under the culinary radar lately.

click image to enlarge

Ribollita eschews the stereotypes of Italian dining – no checkered table cloths or Chianti candle holders. Instead, it offers some of the most inspired Tuscany-influenced fare in Maine.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

DINING REVIEW

RIBOLLITA, 41 Middle St., Portland. 774-2972; RIBOLLITAMAINE.COM

****

HOURS: 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday

PRICE RANGE: $4.75 to $19.95, with most dinner entrees in the $15 to $18 range

BAR: Beer and wine; exclusively Italian wine list

CREDIT CARDS: All major

VEGETARIAN: Yes

GLUTEN-FREE: Yes

KIDS: No children's menu

RESERVATIONS: Yes

WHEELCHAIR ACCESSIBLE: Yes

BOTTOM LINE: Ribollita's long-standing reputation is well-deserved. Order handmade pasta (especially the gnocchi) in this rustic, romantic neighborhood trattoria, and have it served by friendly and food-loving staff. The signature ribollita soup is outstanding, and each of the exclusively Italian wines show thought in both selection and price point. For some of the best Tuscany-inspired dishes in the area, Ribollita is the place to go.

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.

Ribollita's first impression is its fragrance. The space is warm with earthy, rich and savory kitchen scents of tomato and basil, and I complimented this aspect upon arrival. Far from a suburban interpretation of Italian cuisine -- no checkered tablecloths or drippy candles -- this Middle Street eatery extends white linen charm.

Quiet and unassuming, Ribollita is ideal for a lingering dinner with friends or a romantic evening occasion for two. The walls? Brick. The decor? Handmade pottery and bright paintings. The service? Sweet and friendly.

Among the night's suggestions, the Baby Bruno from Tuscany ($38 per bottle; $9.50 per glass) is just one of the exclusively Italian wines on the list. For some wine enthusiasts this will be a sacrilege, but I enjoy the declassified, younger version of the Brunello di Montalcino just as much -- if not more -- than its older, more established brother, because even without the years of aging, this wine is true to its description -- "massive, dark, chocolatey, and muscular." Or more simply put, yum.

Chef/owner Kevin Quiet serves his eponymous ribollita in large and heavy ceramic bowls, and the depth and character of this bread and tomato soup make a diner forget its humble roots as, essentially, leftovers. (Ribollita means "reboiled.") The soup is thick with chopped, fresh vegetables, and tastes as if it has simmered for hours. Because of its ample portion, Ribollita's ribollita ($5.95) is a meal in itself -- each spoonful delicious.

That noted, I was just getting started, and the menu divides into antipasti, zuppa/insalata, traditional favorites, contorni (side dishes), handmade pastas and secondi. Bring a friend, and plan to arrive with an appetite.

Really. Plan to arrive with an appetite.

I tend to avoid Caesar salads, as they so often seem like bland restaurant afterthoughts, but here is another dish that Ribollita does very well with its abundance of cold romaine, toasted croutons, just the right amount of well-distributed dressing, and four thick and briny anchovy filets. It was a simple, familiar and refreshing segue, and if you are on the fence, please accept this as my endorsement. Like most of Ribollita's items, there is plenty to share with the table.

Before I criticize the Polenta Crusted Calamari with Cherry Pepper Aioli ($8.95), I acknowledge that calamari is hard to cook. The difference between toothsome and rubbery often comes down to mere seconds in a pan and the narrowest of temperature variation.

My experience included a soggy coating accompanied by an over-large bowl of flavored mayonnaise. Others may disagree, but I would not recommend this dish, especially when Ribollita's menu is filled with so many magnificent choices.

For instance, the Pan-Seared Gnocchi from the handmade pasta section ($16.95). There is gnocchi and there is gnocchi, and Ribollita's sets a local standard.

These puffs of potato heaven, seared to a light brown crust, are served with quarter-sized bits of prosciutto and bright pods of snap peas. The blend of sweet and salty, crisp and chewy might not be particularly innovative, but it is attractive on a plate and extraordinarily satisfying.

The Pan Roasted Salmon ($17.95), with creamed spinach and stracciatelle, was also delicious. Topped with a dollop of tapenade, I worried about the potential for strong and competing flavors, but the filet was cooked to a picture-perfect flake, the pasta tender, and the overall presentation lovely.

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