Nothing disappears faster than childhood. Some parents mark the cruel passage of time by bronzing baby booties, some by taping crayon-and-paste collages to their refrigerator doors. Chefs Damian Sansonetti and Ilma Lopez name new restaurants.

The couple’s first sit-down restaurant, Piccolo, which means “little” in Italian, opened in 2013, when their daughter was just 2 weeks old – not long after the pair relocated from New York City to Maine. Then, late this summer, the two opened Chaval in Portland’s West End. The restaurant’s name is Spanish slang for “young kid.”

When I asked them to guess what their next business might be called, they didn’t hesitate.

“College Tuition,” laughed Sansonetti.

In their major endeavors, Lopez and Sansonetti have also shown a willingness to reinvent spaces left behind by beloved local institutions. Piccolo occupies the spot where Bresca stood, and Chaval the building that once was Caiola’s, a neighborhood stalwart.

“We knew that it might take people some time to get used to it. So we’re taking things slowly, being careful about it,” Lopez said when we spoke last year. This February, the pair started the process, shuttering Caiola’s for good and embarking on what would become several months of extensive renovations.


Today, the front room looks twice as large, with husky oak-and-pine furnishings and a rafter-lighted bar stocked prodigiously with amaros, vermouths and sherries, including a Spanish Aurora manzanilla sherry on draft ($6) that fits with Chaval’s hybrid Spanish-and-French menu.

There is also a rear dining room that can be accessed only by passing through the open kitchen – a design flaw that Lopez and Sansonetti have turned into a feature by stripping the restaurant of most of the traditional boundaries between front-of-house and back-of-house. Walk through Chaval’s kitchen and you won’t be chased out; you’ll probably be greeted by a prep cook, or (as happened to me one afternoon), offered a strawberry.

Free fruit samples aside, the dining room at the rear – with its long wall of hard banquette seating and blustery heat pump – can get brutally loud. Noise-dampening panels are on their way, according to Lopez, but until they arrive, ask to sit up front, among the mosaic walls of irregularly cut smoked mirror glass and crocheted plant holders that hang from the ceiling like stalactites.

“I brought you here so you could get some ideas for your venue,” a chatty wedding planner said to the couple seated with him at a nearby table. He gestured expansively around the room, then back to the menu. “And for the food, of course.”

All three proceeded to order the steak frites ($25). Glancing over at their plates, I knew I had to join them. Sansonetti, Chaval’s savory chef, prepares this classic French dish simply, seasoning grilled 10½-ounce New York strip steaks with nothing more than black pepper and flaked sea salt. Alongside, two cups: one a paper condiment cup of béarnaise sauce, buzzing with licorice flavors from chopped tarragon and housemade tarragon vinegar. The other a tall, stainless steel tumbler filled with crisp, salty, twice-fried local Green Thumb Farms potatoes.

But short loin cuts of beef are always a crapshoot, even when they’re cooked perfectly. And on the night I visited, mine was chewy – the evening’s only let-down.


I made up for it with an order of the outlandishly crimson tomato bread ($5), Chaval’s version of Spanish pan con tomate (or pa amb tomaquet in Catalonia). Each piece of bread is toasted on the flattop plancha, rubbed with clove after clove of raw garlic, then covered to the edges with chopped tomatoes that Sansonetti marinates in salt and white pepper to coax out their excess liquid. It’s a brilliant trick that keeps the warm bread crisp underneath the cool tomatoes.

Temperature also plays an important role in Chaval’s sepia ($12): cuttlefish with potatoes, celery and a squid-ink aioli. Here, the tender, blanched white flesh is served cold and topped with micro celery and lemon zest to tamp down any funk. Consequently, there’s nothing fishy about this dish, just a gorgeous, soft salinity and heat from the chili-powder-sprinkled aioli.

Chaval’s sepia features cuttlefish, celery and squid-ink aioli.

Sansonetti’s pork terrine ($11) pulls off nearly the same feat. His “fromage de tête,” or head cheese, is clean-tasting, almost sweet, with none of the notorious barnyardy, old-boot off-flavors that mar other versions. And it’s even better spread with an atom-thin layer of Dijon mustard and topped with a sliver of homemade pickled local pear.

“I got the charcuterie bug when I was working in New York City and had the chance to work with some of the best charcuterie chefs in the world. Then I went to Paris to work with Gilles Verot, a third-generation charcuterie chef who won an international competition for his head cheese. I thought I knew how to make it, but then they showed me that I knew nothing. So I had to learn,” Sansonetti said. We should consider ourselves lucky that he did.

Chaval’s menu also offers Sansonetti plenty of opportunities to show off his skill with vegetables, from a salad of Belgian endive, veiny Cabrales bleu cheese, pickled onions and Applewood-smoked walnuts ($9) that tastes like the memory of a summer campfire, to a vegetarian entrée bluntly named “Vegetable” ($17).

On the page, the dish is so unassuming that an omnivore might never stop to read more. That would be a mistake. On the plate, “Vegetable” is a substantial dish of salt-roasted celeriac, half-moons of caramelized delicata squash, Swiss chard and a rustic Spanish romesco sauce with just enough structure and tang to resolve all the flavors into a cohesive whole.


As he cleared our plates, our server mused, “I think meat-eaters order that sometimes so they’re still hungry for dessert.” It’s not a bad strategy. With Lopez, a 2017 James Beard Award semifinalist, in charge of Chaval’s sweet dishes, skipping dessert just isn’t an option.

Steak frites are seasoned simply and accompanied with a condiment cup of béarnaise sauce.

Take for example, Bee’s Knees ($11), an extraordinary beehive-shaped miniature bombe Alaska that Lopez builds from a disc of gin-soaked vanilla cake coiled around a spiral of lemon curd, a tight mound of caramelized honey ice cream and a frothy blanket of soft, browned meringue. When it arrives at the table, the server streams hyperactive blue drizzles of flaming rum over the top. Suddenly, everything smells like molasses and caramel.

It’s a self-assured, sophisticated dish – one that relies on Lopez’s masterful understanding of simple ingredients like egg whites, rum and honey, and how they connect back to the restaurant’s Spanish/French theme, as well as to the very ethos behind Chaval: “We know when to use different techniques, but we don’t feel like we need to show you 10 in one dish to make you happy,” Lopez said. “That just feels soulless, without love. For us, it’s about making really good food that makes our team excited to come to work every day. This is what we love to do. We’re older. We’re grown up.”

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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