Why does an Italian chef leave Rome, move to the United States and open a restaurant and bakery in – wait for it – Bangor? “Because I like adventure,” says Massimo Ranni, in his melodically accented, rapid-fire English. “I told my wife we should take a risk and see what happens if we offer people in Maine my kind of food – the simple food – that I grew up with in Lazio.”

You’ll be glad he did. Massimo’s Cucina Italiana, the restaurant that Ranni and his wife Anne Marie opened on Hammond Street in 2007, is a celebration of regional Italian cuisine, and a reminder that simplicity really is the ultimate sophistication.

Order Bucatini All’ Amatriciana ($15), and you’ll discover why. The dish blends thick, spaghetti-like strands of pasta with just a few ingredients: tomatoes, onions and shreds of pancetta, the salt-cured pork belly that infuses flavor but not smokiness. (It’s among Italy’s finest exports, right up there with Parmigiano Reggiano, the Fiat 500 and Brioni’s two-button suit.) Twirl your fork into the bowl and savor the intensity of the tomatoes. Dip the pasta into the fat rendered from the pancetta and notice how meaty the dish tastes, though the flecks of pork appear only sparingly. Note the subtle sweetness of the onions. You won’t want to reach for salt or cheese or any other distraction; this pasta is too good all by itself. In fact, I dare you to leave a forkful behind. (Though, if for any reason you do, there’s a basket of Massimo’s crusty bread on the table to mop up the sauce.)

Less zesty, but equally satisfying, is Peperone Ripieno ($11), an appetizer. A red pepper is stuffed with orzo, cherry tomatoes and black olives, then dusted with herbs and moistened with fruity olive oil. It’s a Roman classic without flourishes, just pasta and vegetables baked until the walls of the pepper soften, and the orzo absorbs the juices that are released. Before it’s brought to the table (no microwaves or warming ovens here: dishes emerge from the kitchen as soon as they’re completed) a few shavings of Pecorino Romano melt into the orzo, providing a salty counterpoint to the sweetness of the pepper. “The recipes I make here are supposed to be simple, like the things we’d have at home in Rome,” Ranni says. “You don’t need to read in advance what’s in every dish. Your tastebuds will translate it for you. I tell my customers ‘Trust me. Let me make something for you. You tell me what’s in it afterward and whether you like it.’ And they do. That’s a beautiful thing.”

So are his tiny New Zealand lamb chops, which appear in a special called Costolette di Abbacchio alla Scottadito ($28), literally “finger-scalding suckling lamb chops.” You’re meant to pick them up and eat with your bare hands, and this meat is so aromatic and juicy that I didn’t hesitate – burned fingers notwithstanding. I followed Massimo’s suggestion and let my tastebuds chase the flavors: a rich saltiness (he melts anchovies into the hot pan with the meat) chunks of garlic, extra-virgin olive oil from Sicily, a dazzling flash of hot pepper, finally citrus to provide a sharp finish. Even if you think you don’t love lamb, try the costolette. You can thank me later. And your fingers will heal.

Reflecting the chef’s style of cooking, Massimo’s Cucina Italiana feels traditional and informal. The interior of the historic building (accessed through a discordantly Disney-like courtyard) is low-lit and peaceful. The night we visited, Andrea Bocelli CDs were playing softly as friends gathered at high-tops near the bar to share glasses of wine and platters of cheese and dried meats ($5 each or $26 for a selection of six), while a few larger groups sat at tables in the dining room. (Ranni also welcomes children enthusiastically. “They are so honest,” he says. “It’s either ‘yes, I like it’ or ‘yuck, I don’t,’ so I like to show them something different by making a special dish just for them and, suddenly, they are in love with linguine or lamb…”) There are no white tablecloths, just the torn lengths of brown paper you find in Italian trattorias.

It’s not the tablescape you remember here; it’s the food.

Take Tilapia alla Limone, perhaps the simplest entrée on the menu. The thin fillet was baked – not seared – in a pan with olive oil and butter, then finished with capers, wine and lemon juice. Each flavor was distinct: the delicate sole-like fish, the briny bite of the capers and the oily richness of the pan sauce. When Ranni talks about cooking, he continually emphasizes respect for ingredients, and says of tilapia with lemon, “some things are born to die together.”

When my time comes, I’d like to say goodbye with – or in – a dish of Massimo’s strawberry gelato. Like the rest of the food here, it’s not fancy. It’s just flavorful. The secret may be sugar – just enough – and lemon zest, which brightens the ice cream and heightens the natural sweetness of the fruit. I like regular ice cream well enough, but it has a much higher butterfat content than gelato. This gelato not only tastes lighter, it melts more quickly on the tongue and seems more refreshing – more like a pleasing scoop of sorbet than a weighty spoonful of Häagen-Dazs.

If you crave a heavier dessert, you can always try the tiramisu, but caveat emptor: A thick dusting of cocoa powder covers the mousse-like mixture of eggs, sugar, mascarpone and savoiardi (lady fingers), and one ill-timed sigh of pleasure means you’re likely to inhale a cloud of cocoa. Our waitress served the dessert with a whispered warning: “Go slow. In the kitchen we say that when you hear a customer coughing, we know they’re having the tiramisu.”

Ranni is currently renovating his bakery just up the street from the restaurant (it’s scheduled to reopen later this month), as well as a new commercial kitchen in Brewer, but the menu at Massimo’s Cucina Italiana will remain unchanged. And that’s as it should be. The revered cookbook author Marcella Hazan, another Italian expat with a passion for regional cuisine, always asked, “Why not make it simple?” Massimo Ranni does.

James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines for more than 30 years. Long a commuter between Portland and Washington, D.C., he retired from his job as vice president at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2013 and relocated to Maine.

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