A recent evening at Friends & Family, a new restaurant in Portland’s Arts District. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

If Cecily Upton and Michael Malyniwsky had a favorite Ed Sheeran album, it would be “Subtraction (-).” Just kidding. Nobody has a favorite Ed Sheeran album.

But my point still holds: The co-owners of Portland’s Friends & Family, a wine bar and then some, have created a special environment in the former Vinland space, and they’ve done it with an editorial spirit that suffuses nearly every part of the business.

Start with Friends & Family’s physical environment, an Arts District storefront with unexpectedly high ceilings, vintage tin roof and a skylight that bathes the dining room in natural light and shifting shadows. Gone are the birch-limb wall sculptures that once narrowed the space. In their place, a mural of abstract geometric wingdings by local artist Jenny McGee Dougherty, a black-tiled wall to showcase sparkling glassware and an enormous stretch of shallow shelving to showcase every bottle of wine Friends & Family sells.

Putting bottles on display also allows Upton and Malyniwsky to ditch something that most wine bars wouldn’t dare to eliminate: a printed wine list.

“Our list is essentially our wall, except for a few things we have chilled, but even those are usually up there,” Upton said. “If you come in, you can get a more visual sense of what’s available, and you can pick anything you want to drink with your meal. We also wanted people to tell us how they wanted to use the space, and one thing they were telling us is that, yeah, we do want wine to-go, so people can come in and grab a bottle or two to take home with them. They’re all priced for to-go, but if people want to drink them here, we just add a small service fee, but it’s still a great deal.”

As for bottle pricing, Upton is right. There are some bargains on the ever-changing wall of (mostly) natural wines from around the world. By the glass, however, those generally terrific wines are priced as at any moderately pricey downtown restaurant.

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Across two recent visits, I tasted the petillant Poggio Delle Baccanti Gragnano ($13), a tannic, structured wine that I found much heavier and well-balanced than many sweeter Gragnanos I have tried, as well as a zesty, verbena-scented Tocai Friulano white from St. Romedius vineyards in the Sierra Foothills of California ($15). But my favorite was a lean, neon-tinted Troupis Moschofilero ($16), a Greek, skin-contact wine that could pass as red or rosé, and which seemed to go well with everything I ordered, even the slightly underbaked, custard-drizzled rye-flour blondie ($8).

All three wines stood up well to the pairing challenges posed by meat and cheese boards ($15/small, $28 large), which are the backbone of the restaurant’s short food menu. Here’s where Upton and Malyniwsky’s editorial bent assists them yet again. In creating a terse, vague-ish descriptor for each board: “Three cheeses, two meats, accompaniments (for the large cheese-and-meat board)” for example, the duo are able to improvise and tailor their boards to what’s in season and in stock.

There isn’t much I tasted on one of Friends & Family’s boards that I didn’t love. Among the best items were the Arethusa Farm Tapping Reeve cheese from Connecticut, a crumbly, mottled cow’s milk cheese that tasted like a cross between Manchego and Parmesan; chef Malyniwsky’s mineral, slightly runny housemade Aleppo pepper and apricot jam; bloomy-rinded Tide Line from Winter Hill Farm; and snappy, tangy homemade cauliflower pickles.

If you’re reading this, David Levi, cover your eyes now. I’m about to say something that would have been heresy when Vinland was open. Loosening up on the strictness around local sourcing is another of Upton and Malyniwsky’s smart subtractions.

That goes double when Friends & Family uses its freedom to serve charcuterie, like the funky, fiery Underground Meats “Three Way” salami featuring three styles of Wisconsin-grown Calabrian peppers.

“There’s been a lot more domestic cured meat production recently. More and more are appearing every month, and as locals like A Small Good and Broad Arrow get into production, we try to carry those as well,” Upton said when I spoke with her last December. “But I met the Underground Meats guys, Johnny Hunter and his brother, Ben, about 15 years ago. That was also when I met Michael; we were all playing bike polo. Those guys are so good at what they do, and they make some award-winning products, so it’s an easy choice for us.”

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Not only does the Calabrian salami appear regularly on Friends & Family’s boards, but the blisteringly hot Underground Meats Ghost Pepperoni shows up occasionally as a topping for the restaurant’s pizza. Yes, you read that correctly: pizza.

The Grandma Slice at Friends & Family. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Nearly every day, there’s a pie on the menu. Most days, it’s the Grandma Pie, sold by the slice (starting at $8 for a large cheese slice). Malyniwsky’s version is a pretty traditional rendition of the thick-crusted, pan-baked Sicilian-style pie. But flip it over and you’ll spot a bottom crust that’s crispier than you might predict. It all makes sense when you learn that Malyniwsky’s most recent previous gig was launching a tray-baked Detroit-style pizza joint in San Francisco. But provenance and inspiration don’t really matter much when the slices are this good.

“That’s quite an elevated grandma slice,” my dinner guest (and editor) remarked. I couldn’t tell if she meant the lofty rise of the three-day-long-fermented dough or the precise knife cuts and artistic single basil leaf set atop the bubbling mozzarella. One thing was certain after we tasted it though: This was a superb piece of pizza.

Twice more, I had the same experience. Once during a midweek visit when I tried the quicker (but still 24-hours long) fermented, rustic and perhaps a little less puffy version of the Grandma Slice ($8), and then again when I tasted Friends & Family’s Monday-only special Caprese pizza ($24/pie), a thin-crust, round pie topped with fresh mozzarella and blistered tomatoes from Dandelion Spring Farm.

Pardon the dough pun, but it’s no stretch to call Malyniwsky one of the top-three pizzaioli in Portland right now. And if you really want to try his best, you’ll have to come for Pizza Night on a Monday.

The Charred Cauliflower at Friends & Family. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

At the start of each week, Friends & Family truncates its menu even further than normal, leaving off some of its best dishes – like grill-charred and still-crunchy cauliflower cured with coriander, salt and pepper, and plated with flowering oregano and nutty tahini dressing ($13) – to make room for more pizza. Had it been up to me, I’d have kept the wonderful charred cauliflower on the Monday menu along with the chicory salad drizzled with tarragon-and-parmesan dressing and topped with sesame seeds and crushed croutons ($12), and perhaps jettisoned the underwhelming massaged Lacinato kale salad languishing under a weighted blanket of shaved Pecorino Romano ($13).

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It’s a testament to Upton and Malyniwsky’s editing skills that this is the only subtraction of theirs I disagree with, from the suave, yet minimal dining room to the elimination of a table-service model in favor of a hybrid, order-at-the-counter version that forces you to interact with the wine, cheese and meat experts who work here.

Indeed, if I had a choice in the matter, I’d add something – I’d make every night pizza night, tiny menu and all. Who knows, that might eventually be on the cards:

“We were looking at how so many restaurants are closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, and that’s usually when we like to go out because it’s less busy. But we made the choice to be open on Mondays so everyone from the industry who’s off that night can come in for pizza and a low-key, fun evening. It’s busy, but it’s communal, and it’s one of the nicest compliments that these people are enjoying our food on their night off,” Upton said. “You know, when we were first getting ideas off the ground for what we wanted to do with Friends & Family, Michael said, ‘I don’t want to have a pizza restaurant. But I don’t NOT want to have a pizza restaurant.’”

And through the magic of arithmetic, they’ve done exactly what they set out to do.

Friends & Family’s Savory Hand Pie, filled with jerk chicken and served with dandelion greens and herbed yogurt. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

RATING: ***1/2 Thursday-Sunday; **** Pizza night
WHERE: 593 Congress St., Portland. 207-536-4022. friendsandfamilymaine.com
SERVING: Thursday to Sunday, 12:30-9 p.m, Monday (Pizza Night), 4-9 p.m.
PRICE RANGE: Small plates: $6-$28. Pizzas: $18-$24
NOISE LEVEL: Marching band rehearsal
VEGETARIAN: Some dishes
GLUTEN-FREE: Some dishes
RESERVATIONS: Recommended
BAR: Beer and wine
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes
BOTTOM LINE: Friends & Family spends 80% of its operating hours as an appealing small-plates-focused wine bar. It does a fine job of offering a broad spectrum of wines and beers from around the world, as well as cheeses and meats to snack on as you sip. Chef Michael Malyniwsky also prepares creative pressed sandwiches and a few delightful small plates, like still-crunchy, herby charred cauliflower, and savory hand pies reminiscent of Cornish pasties. If the story ended there, it would be a happy one. But there’s another 20% to account for at Friends & Family, and that’s Monday Pizza Night – an evening where the menu shrinks to make space for at least three types of pizza. Try the Grandma Slice on any night, but it’s best on Mondays, when the dough gets an extra two days of fermentation time. Thin-crust pizzas served on Pizza Night are also fantastic, especially the Caprese, lavishly topped with fresh mozzarella and local tomatoes. Is Friends & Family a wine bar or a pizza place? Who cares. It’s a delight.

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 five recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.

Contact him at: [email protected]
Twitter: @AndrewRossME


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