I removed my glasses the second I stepped inside Enio’s dining room, swabbed them on the sleeve of my coat, then slid them back onto the bridge of my nose. Nope: still blurry. Was the temperature differential of frigid, dry wind outside versus toasty, garlic-scented air inside the narrow trattoria causing my lenses to fog?

“It’s not you. Look up,” my dinner guest said, squinting at the gauzy glow around the lightbulbs. “It’s a little overcast in here.”

Enio’s is a tiny operation that prides itself on making nearly everything it serves from scratch. That’s all the more remarkable when you stop to consider that chef/co-owner Laura Butler runs the back-of-house single-handed, aided only by a dishwasher. Similarly, her husband, co-owner Bob Butler, handles the front solo, with a single busser as backup.

“We’re basically a low-key, mom-and-pop place, and we’ve always done things that way, all the way back to 1996 (when the couple opened Rachel’s Wood Grill on Exchange St. in Portland),” Laura Butler said. “We make everything ourselves and get our inspiration from eating out when we visit Italy, little places where the emphasis is on food and wine, letting that be the focus, not being flashy.”

To be sure, the former bakery (and flower shop) that houses the South Portland restaurant is so unassuming, it blends stealthily into the stretch of residences that surround it. If you are not on the lookout for Enio’s, you might drive past without ever noticing it.

The interior is equally modest: checkerboard linoleum floors, banquettes fashioned from planks charred in the style of Japanese shou sugi ban and off-white walls that reflect the space’s diffuse, warm yellow light.

Since mid-2013, when a mostly positive review in this paper described the then-new restaurant as “clean, light and unfussy,” little has changed at Enio’s, and that includes chef Laura Butler’s charmingly “uncomplicated” cooking. Except now, thanks to an open-flame grill installed that autumn (the source of the Vaseline-lens haze that floats over the dining room), her menus have expanded to feature wood-grilled dishes.

Enio’s grilled pork chop with risotto – its popularity is deserved. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

These days, brawny cuts of meat like a grill-marked, medium-rare Maine Family Farms pork chop ($31) drizzled with veal reduction and angled, teetering on an enormous portion of porcini-and-fontina risotto, are among Enio’s most popular (and successful) dishes.

You’ll also find wood-grilled proteins playing supporting roles alongside the dozen or so varieties of homemade pasta that Laura Butler prepares. My favorite is the fat link of blistered Italian-style sausage, prickling with aromatic sage, allspice and rosemary, that she nestles into an ample portion of semolina-and-durum wheat radiatore ($28). Stirred through with kale, roasted red peppers and smoky half-moons of sweet delicata squash, it’s a rustic Italian daydream of autumn in New England. 

While Enio’s dense, nearly cheesecake-like St. Louis Butter Cake with macerated strawberries and house-made chocolate ice cream ($10) isn’t Italian, it is a testament to the breadth of Laura Butler’s culinary skill, not to mention tenacity in her commitment to scratch cooking. That extends to snacks and appetizers like rich chicken liver mousse topped with a softly bittersweet balsamic vinegar and cabernet sauvignon reduction ($8), where even the accompanying grilled toasts are made from airy-crumbed homemade sourdough.

Yet when Enio’s goes off-script things can also go awry, such as when thick slices of that same crusty bread are overloaded with lemon-infused Spanish Matiz sardines, pickled onions and a groaning portion of veiny bleu cheese ($15). What results is a crackling short-circuit of savory and umami flavors on an unwieldy dish. Just ask the couple sitting at one of the bar-height window seats near me last week. I watched as one lifted a toast from his plate and promptly liberated all the toppings into the lap of his friend. The two just laughed it off and ordered another couple of glasses of wine.

On Bob Butler’s judicious selection of well-priced, mostly Italian, entirely Old World wines are plenty of options to help you recover from the agony of a lapful of preserved fish. His well-balanced list also seems engineered for pairing with wood-grilled proteins and simple vegetable dishes, especially the tannic, Sangiovese- and Nebbiolo-based Tuscan reds.

One menu item that stands up particularly well to wines with a bit of astringency is the wilted spinach appetizer ($11), a straightforward-appearing plate of sauteed greens seasoned with spinach pesto. Hidden among the thousands of rumpled pleats are flecks of garlic and cannellini beans barely beginning to molt from their skins, white flesh spreading into a blur – a starchy parallel to the soft-focus of woodsmoke floating a few feet above.

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 three recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.
Contact him at: [email protected]
Twitter: @AndrewRossME


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