Before Pizzarino in Portland, there was Peck in Milan.

The Milanese denote the gourmet food shop’s singular status by referring to it familiarly as “al Peck,” or “at Peck’s place.” To locals, there is never any confusion – there can be only one Peck – a legendarily ritzy, 135-year-old fine-food purveyor, that is as much of an institution in Milan as the Duomo or the national postal service.

To get a sense of how swanky Peck is, picture a food hall featuring a deli stocked with the fanciest meats and cheeses, a wine cellar with a $6 million inventory and a produce section where every vegetable looks like it was auditioned and screen-tested.

Mauro Stoppino, Pizzarino’s owner and general manager, once ran Peck with his family (they purchased the shop in the 1970s and sold it in 2015). When their tenure “al Peck” ended, Stoppino started work on his next venture: a wine shop. But he could never find the right location for it.

So when his old friend, Enrico Barbiero, the owner of Portland’s Paciarino restaurant visited Milan last year, the time was right for the two to go into business together stateside. In August, the pair brightened up the former Zapoteca space with walls painted in cream, mix-and-match banquette cushions and pendant lights skirted playfully with red bread baskets.

They also found a unique way to introduce themselves to diners, via a plastic-coated placard, dense with text on both sides, that adorns every table. One side tells the history of Stoppino and Barbiero’s long friendship, culminating in their business partnership. “We wanted to create a restaurant with a personality, so we wanted to explain who we are,” Stoppino said. “We found that when we go out to dinner in Portland, you cannot imagine who the owners of that place are. They are never present. We also have seen Italian restaurants where there are no Italians inside.”

Verso, the sheet offers a three-part lecture. The first two sections describe the high-fiber, wholemeal Farina Intera flour Pizzarino imports (and sells) and the lightness of the pizza crust it produces. The third contains the most audaciously pseudoscientific upsell I’ve ever encountered, encouraging diners to drink wine, beer, cocktails or soft drinks when they eat pizza – never water – because after a glass of good old H2O, “the (residual) yeasts will restart the fermentation, producing carbon dioxin (sic) and generating discomfort.” Don’t tell Pizzarino, but yeast activates better when you add sugary nutrients to the mix – the very kind you find in wine, beer and especially soft drinks.

Dodgy science aside, the laminated info sheet’s description of Pizzarino’s crisp, airy pizza crust is exactly right. Slightly sweet from the finely ground bran added back to the flour, the dough is cold-fermented for two or three days to give it body without too much elasticity. Each perfect disc – cut twice with an inverted bowl – makes an ideal base for savory ingredients.

The quattro formaggi pizza ($15) is an excellent example, rich with grated parmesan, melted Gorgonzola, goat cheese and Italian mozzarella that Stoppino sources daily from a local distributor. Or the Pugliese ($11), essentially a Margherita pizza strewn with thin shavings of red onion, torn basil leaves and what our server told us were canned olives. I was a little surprised that she so readily copped to it.

I shouldn’t have been. On the prosciutto cotto (cooked prosciutto ham) and mushroom pizza ($15), amid marbled, almost translucent pink slices of pork were rubbery porcini that reminded me of something I might have eaten at a video-game arcade in the 1980s. When I asked Stoppino about the mushrooms, he told me plainly, “Yes, they’re from a can.”

Remember, Stoppino knows a thing or two about sourcing high-quality products and ingredients from his days at Peck, but in North America, at a full-service restaurant, that skill frequently doesn’t seem to translate well.

Take gnocchi, one of Pizzarino’s signature dishes. Because the tiny potato dumplings are time-consuming to prepare, Stoppino told me the restaurant sometimes serves the pre-packaged, vacuum-sealed Bellino variety. That’s precisely what I tasted on both of my recent visits. Sauced with pesto ($16) and cooked correctly, they’re decent, but not especially flavorful. But when they are over-boiled, they turn into a gluey mess, as they were in the gnocchi Bolognese ($15) I tried on my first visit. I had to talk my dinner guest down from sending them back.

Desserts – largely a collection of chilled or frozen treats – are nearly all ready-made. These pre-made sweets are serviceable, but nothing special. Each is part of the Bindi Signature Glass selection of desserts that arrive pre-poured into reusable, single-serving pieces of glassware. Everything from chocolate mousse ($11) piped into a short, angled lowball to limoncello sorbetto ($10) swirled into a chunky champagne flute.

Occasionally, things go wrong even with pre-prepared desserts, as they did during my first visit to Pizzarino, when I was served a broken glass containing a coffee parfait ($10) of fior di latte gelato extruded together with a coffee and cocoa swirl. And in a clever bit of thrifty repurposing, glasses that manage to survive dessert service intact are washed and stacked in inverted pyramids in Pizzarino’s windows, where they are available for purchase.

Arancino pomodoro featured baseball-sized risotto balls in a garlicky sauce.

It should come as no surprise that Pizzarino’s best dishes are homemade. While there is no fresh risotto on the menu (too much last-minute work), there are two terrific dishes made from pre-cooked and refrigerated risotto: arancini – hefty, baseball-sized risotto balls bathed in tart, garlicky pomodoro sauce ($14) – and risotto salto – Milanese-style rice cakes made from saffron-infused Carnaroli rice pressed into discs and shallow-fried in butter. Both the artichoke ($10) and mushroom ($11) versions are worth a try.

So too, the sweet pizza (pizza dolce) with orange marmalade ($10), a thin disc of crisp crust topped with bittersweet preserves and a sprinkling of powdered sugar. One is enough to share among four hungry adults.

Even salads (not so much house-made as house-assembled) feature elements that Pizzarino creates with evident care, like Stoppino’s vinaigrette, a dense, nearly mayonnaise-like dressing he builds by hand, working together balsamic vinegar with olive oil chilled so cold it nearly sets. In the insalata naviglio ($11), that vinaigrette sparks and shimmers against the backdrop of imported tuna, capers and a nest of red onion slivers.

The hand-whisked vinaigrette sparkled in the insalata naviglio.

Unfortunately, that extraordinary, hand-whisked vinaigrette stands in stark contrast to much of Pizzarino’s menu. The preponderance of underwhelming, ready-made components (even entire dishes) gives the restaurant an amateurish, fast-casual feel that runs counter to the restaurant’s mission “to do only a few dishes and do them right,” as Stoppino told me.

In Maine, where diners are knowledgeable and where everything from fine dining to bowling alley cuisine is prepped every day from scratch, expectations run high. Unwrapping boxed food and plopping it onto a plate simply won’t cut it here, even if it is top-shelf stuff, imported from Italy.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of two 2018 Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association. Contact him at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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