Pure, unadulterated confidence is a rare commodity in the restaurant world.

More frequently, you’ll encounter it in its alloyed form — underconfidence — which you can spot through bland, stale décor and unambitious dishes that never seem to change from season to season or year to year.

Worse (and sadly, even more common) is its opposite: overconfidence, a glittery amalgam that ought to be called Fool’s Confidence. You’ll find it wherever you see gimmicky cocktails, sprawling, schizophrenic menus, and ludicrous dishes that feature a bedlam of unnecessary ingredients.

Simple confidence is scarce because, to create it, you need experience, clarity of vision and a genuine understanding of the boundaries and amplitudes of your abilities.

Just ask Sam Ostrow, chef and owner of Festina Lente, a tiny-yet-stylish 26-seat restaurant that opened in Kittery almost a year ago. Motivated by the poise and self-possession of restaurants he visited when he traveled to Italy in his 20s, he has assembled a terse menu of about a dozen appetizers and soups, alongside just eight pastas and mains. Maybe more to the point, while his modern, rustic Italian restaurant has a full liquor license, you won’t find a Negroni or Old Fashioned at the chic dark-walnut-topped bar. Wine, beer, digestifs and aperitifs are what’s on offer at Festina Lente.

“One big reason is that, with such a small space, staffing a bartender to make cocktails just wouldn’t be financially viable,” he said. “We also have one coffee maker. It makes coffee: no espressos, cappuccinos, no decaf. We have a big ‘Don’t do it if it’s going to stretch you too far’ mentality. I always try to think what a tiny place would do in Italy, where they cordially say, ‘This is what we have to serve you. No more than that. Please enjoy it with us.’ It keeps things simple.”

Ostrow, who previously cooked at The Black Birch and Portsmouth’s Black Trumpet and Block Six at 3S Artspace, conspired with Kittery design firm Winter Holben to extend his clear-eyed vision to everything from the business’s line-art anchor-and-fish logo to the high-gloss concrete floors.

The menu, on the other hand, is all his own.

The cacio e pepe chitarra spaghetti is worth the trip. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Nearly everything that comes out of the miniature kitchen is house-made, from a gorgeously balanced scoop of chocolate chunk ice cream churned from dairy infused with fresh spearmint leaves ($3), to skinny shoelaces of chitarra-cut pasta that Ostrow rolls out from a rugged dough of fine semolina and Maine Grains flour. Dangled into a pan of butter, grated pecorino Romano cheese and cracked black pepper, then tong-twirled onto one of the kitchen’s charmingly mismatched vintage plates, this version of cacio e pepe ($15) might be the best I have eaten in Maine.

While Festina Lente’s fresh, 100% semolina rigatoni are just as good, the red-chile-fueled amatriciana ladled over them is undersalted, with barely enough guanciale — used here in place of more traditional pancetta — to provide the tongue-coating fattiness the sauce requires. As mistakes go, it’s a small one (and easy to remedy). It’s also the only one I encountered during a recent visit.

Most of Ostrow’s other dishes are inventive and seem to spring naturally from ideas germinated by local flavors. Take his panna cotta ($7), a classic Italian dessert that gets a tweak from the spicy funk of overwintered parsnips and sweet crunch of pistachio brittle.

Or either of his springtime asparagus dishes: The first, a hearty farro salad ($10) into which roasted asparagus spears and curlicues of raw, shaved asparagus are stirred. Mounded atop torn heads of just-picked baby lettuces and garnished with thin slices of savory, unsmoked scamorza (hard, aged mozzarella), this is what you might get if you asked a village nonna to make you a grain bowl. 

Then there’s a deceptively named veggie terrine ($10), built upon a cushiony foundation of firmly set polenta from Tuckaway Farm in Lee, New Hampshire. Sure, the umami from the shallot-and-mushroom duxelle is lovely. So is the tart sorrel pesto and the papery layer of prosciutto around the exterior of each slice, but the real star is the tender asparagus spears shot through the center of the terrine like arrows into St. Sebastian.

If I lived a little closer, I’d spend the next month of lunchtimes ordering a slice of terrine and a glass of either the near-savory, petillant Feudo di Santa Tresa Frappato ($10) or the Chiarli Vecchia Modena Lambrusco ($13), a sparkling red stunner with tangy fruit that slaps you in the mouth the way a raspberry lambic might.

As long as they’re on the menu, I would also go out of my way for a plate of Festina Lente’s radishes ($6). Taking a page from the ages-old French tradition of serving newly dug radishes simply, with unsalted butter and a sprinkle of salt, Ostrow builds a wholly new ode to spring. He starts with a miniature salad of radish sprouts and thin coins of radish flesh. Then things move where you’d never predict:

“I was inspired by white-chocolate-dipped strawberries,” he said. “So I get butter to just the right temperature, halve or quarter the radishes, and dip them. As the butter cools, I sprinkle them with sea salt.”  Instead of a candy-coated confection, a savory treat that sparkles with peppery crunch.

If you’re questioning why he would choose to make a feature of a French-inspired appetizer in an Italian restaurant, Ostrow offers neither justification nor apology: “Why not? Radishes are the first things that come up in the garden,” he says. “It’s a playful way of expanding on that.” Well aware that he is serving a remarkable dish, he feels no need to explain. That, right there, is confidence.

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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