When I opened the door to my Chicago apartment one April evening, I found my neighbor, Francesca, standing there, cradling a dish the size of a truck tire. I recognized it immediately. It was her pasta bowl: white porcelain decorated with tiny painted roses and crazed inside with spidery lines the color of strong tea. Once, the bowl had been her mother’s, and before that her grandmother’s. I had seen it in action several times, when I joined her for weekend dinners along with her two young children, husband and, more recently, her father-in-law, Tom.

“I need you to keep this for me for a while. Put it on top of your refrigerator. No, better yet, under your bed. Someplace safe,” she urged. “I came home from work tonight and caught Papa Tom soaking his disgusting feet in it. I ignored it, but then I heard him cleaning out his pipe by whacking it hard against the side of the bowl. So it needs to go into hiding.”

“If I put it under my bed, Zucchini (my cat) will probably sleep in it, and that’s the only place it’ll fit,” I warned.

“A little cat fur, I can live with. But old-man toes, no way,” she said, grimacing and gently handing over the bowl.

I thought about Francesca and her bowl over and over again as I ate a Sunday family-style meal ($16 for adults, $10 for children) at Lena’s Italian Comfort, a new restaurant inside the Portland Pottery Café on Washington Avenue. Here – in a space designed to showcase beautiful platters, plates and mugs – what you eat from becomes almost as much of a focus as what you’re eating. “The gallery is all decked out in handmade pottery. But it’s a lot like being in someone’s kitchen, with hutches and shelving, just like you would find in a home,” said Lisa Bonarrigo, the co-owner of both businesses.

My guests and I duly took note of the dishware as we dunked complimentary, housemade garlic knots stuffed with sweet roasted garlic into a hand-thrown ramekin, filled to overflowing with chef Brian Grossman’s house red sauce.

His thin, onion-free sauce, which forms the base of all the kitchen’s other tomato-based sauces, is lighter than the chunky marinara you might expect from a red-sauce Italian restaurant. “My goal is for the sauce to really highlight the flavor of the San Marzano tomatoes,” said Grossman, owner of the Farm to Coast Mobile Kitchen, and previously a sous chef at both Custom Deluxe in Biddeford and Abbondante in Kennebunk.

Indeed, his pomodoro-like sauce is intensely fruity, and it pairs especially well with red wines with a little tannin, like the remarkably inexpensive Viña Laurent cabernet sauvignon from Chile ($24 for a bottle), or Circa Toscana Rosso (also $24).

As with most items at Lena’s, wine is served in handcrafted pottery. My three guests and I drank ours from four mix-and-match, glazed clay tumblers, which were lovely to look at, but a terrible choice for sharing a bottle of wine. It is impossible to see how much is left in someone’s glass without picking it up – and good luck pouring equitably, when each charmingly handmade cup holds a different amount of liquid. Perplexingly, water is served in regular glass tumblers.

A side of pasta at the Sunday supper was simple but wonderful – and above all, huge.

In other situations, pottery made a wonderful choice for plating. Particularly, the main dishes, which were all delivered on mottled gray and white chargers, each slightly different from the next. And while all the tomato-sauced items looked great against such a background, it was the daily special of house-made butternut squash ravioli with pesto ricotta, pickled red onions and crisp pork belly ($18) that benefited most. The pale, baby-chick yellow of the pasta sheets, the petal pink of the onion and the spark of green from fresh basil – all set against the earthy tones of the plate – brought one thing to mind: springtime. A welcome distraction on a frigid February evening.

The ravioli also offered perhaps my favorite bites of the night, balancing creamy ricotta and indulgently fatty meat with the brisk acidity of pickled onion. That said, the dish is a little bit of a unicorn among the more classic, Italian-American staples at Lena’s; it feels like a plate from a different restaurant.

More typical of the permanent menu fixtures are lasagna and three Parmesan entrees, each of which is also available as part of the Sunday evening family-style meal. I tried all four during a recent visit.

Of all the mains, two were standouts. First, the lasagna ($16), made with handmade pasta sheets layered between ladlefuls of beefy bolognese sauce that has been spiced up with crumbled Italian sausage. It’s a classic for good reason. Then, the meatball Parmesan ($18), with moist, golf ball-sized, pure beef meatballs held together with a gluten-free-breadcrumb panade – our table’s unanimous favorite.

The eggplant Parmesan ($18), made with fat discs of salt-sweated, panko-breaded eggplant, was also enjoyable, thanks to an incredibly soft center that Grossman achieves by finishing the dish over very low heat. However, the trade-off to that long, steam-generating final phase is that the breadcrumb coating loses nearly all of its crunch.

Overcooking was also a problem in the chicken Parm ($18), a simple breast breaded with panko, fresh parsley, oregano and basil that is first pan-fried, then finished in the oven. Sadly, on my visit, the breast was tough and sat mostly uneaten at a table of four avid poultry fans.

Moreover, service, while warm and solicitous, was occasionally an issue. We were overcharged for a bottle of wine, and when we ordered one dessert – a pair of quite decent house-made, lemon-ricotta cannoli ($8) – to share, we were served and charged for two portions.

Cannoli at Lena’s Italian Comfort in Portland

At almost any other restaurant, I’d chalk that up to a misunderstanding, but at Lena’s, all the signs were there that our party was stuffed to capacity. The four of us only managed to make it through one of the two high-sided bowls of honey-balsamic-dressed mesclun salad ($10), each wide enough to hold a fully inflated beach ball. The rest made its way to our ever-growing cornucopia of leftovers, waiting to be boxed at the end of the night.

The lasagna made with handmade pasta sheets, sausage, ricotta, basil and mozzarella was a standout. Staff photo by Ariana van den Akker

Abundance and a sense of bottomless portions are part of the experience of the Sunday family meal at Lena’s, and not by accident.

When co-owners Bonarrigo and her husband, Chris Bruni, sat down with Grossman to plan the menu, the overarching concept for Sundays was always “big portions of food on big platters,” according to Bonarrigo. Nowhere is that more true than in the Sunday supper “side” dish of pasta served alongside mains (and available a la carte for $5). When our server arrived at the table, she wobbled, nearly unable to support the weight of the gargantuan bowl overflowing with skeins and tangles of simple yet wonderful pomodoro-dressed spaghetti. I (and my guests) happily ate the surplus all week.

As I did, I thought of my old friend Francesca, and the meal we shared when Papa Tom eventually moved out. That night, in celebration, she made a nearly identical dish of what seemed like pounds and pounds of lightly sauced pasta tossed with basil leaves. Her children and I each took a few strands of thin spaghetti from the newly reclaimed porcelain bowl and tasted them. “You can barely taste the toes,” I announced. She laughed and replied, “Well, I hope so, because you’re going home with the leftovers.”

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:

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