The pea toast at Bistro Leluco. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

If you didn’t know better, you might guess the team behind Bistro Leluco was local. Or if not made up of Mainers precisely, then New Englanders at the very least.

Partly, it’s the easy way this South Portland bistro slipped into the hermit crab shell left behind by Enio’s, renewing the space from floorboards to ceiling without making a show of it. It’s also the way Leluco’s mostly French and Italian-themed menu offers evidence of connections and relationships with farmers that frequently take chefs years to build. Indeed, a heads-down, unassuming approach is probably not what you might expect from two New Yorkers with the accents to prove it.

I’m no tri-stateophobe, but, like most of you, I’ve witnessed NY/NJ/PA restaurateurs arrive in Maine and struggle to adjust their expectations and practices to suit life in our sparsely populated, yet food-mad state. Sometimes they figure things out after a year, and sometimes they just disappear.

Bistro Leluco co-owners Michele Trizzino and Antonio Rappazzo, on the other hand, have hit the ground sprinting. No adjustment period required.

“We met in Manhattan, in the hustle and bustle of the restaurant industry. We teamed up as operations people for the Almond Bistro group, and then we’ve been in Maine almost five years with our three children, Luca, Leo and Coco (whose names are the inspiration for the restaurant’s name),” Rappazzo said. The couple searched for a Portland-side location for a new restaurant, but instead decided to jump at purchasing the converted Cottage Road bungalow because, “We live in South Portland, our kids and their friends love it here. It’s their neighborhood. It was a no-brainer,” he added.

Bartender Jack O’Brien, center, shakes a cocktail mixer at the new bar at Bistro Leluco. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Their work to transform the entire building into a bright, updated restaurant with modern amenities included mounting a 10-seat, poured concrete bar (that the couple poured themselves). The cool stretch of stone adds flexibility to the room’s seating plan, and it grounds the dining room firmly in traditional bistro sensibilities. It also means room for more cocktails on the menu.


The Starboard & Sandbar at Bistro Leluco. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Bar manager Jack O’Brien has done well with his take on the current trend of tweaking classic drink formulations. His Table Mountain Negroni ($14), a rooibos-infused gin version of the bar standard is light and a little astringent – not necessarily an improvement on the original, but quite pleasant. However, the Starboard & Sandbar ($16) is the real winner, upgrading the Deco-era, scotch-and-cherry-flavored Sandbar by exchanging syrupy stone fruit for citrus and complex, herbal Ramazzotti amaro. Presented under a cloche with hickory smoke pirouetting inside, it’s a showpiece cocktail.

For me, the most critical element in Bistro Leluco’s natural-feeling compatibility with southern Maine is chef Will Durst. A veteran of two of Vermont’s most celebrated restaurants, Hen of the Wood and Prohibition Pig (where he was sous chef), Durst brings experience cultivating good relationships with New England producers.

He also understands modern bistro cooking at a level that few other local chefs do. His steak à poivre ($36) with house-smoked fingerling potatoes and confit cipollini onions is warming and homey, grilled to the correct doneness, and sprinkled with just enough agrodolce, fines herbes and chive oil to keep you coming back for just one more captivating bite.

So it is with his seasonal pea toast ($16) served on grill-marked Standard Baking Co. sourdough bread. Durst makes his own soft, Boursin-style cheese, then layers it on the crisp-crusted bread along with shallots, hazelnuts, and butter-sautéed English and snap peas. An absolute must-order.

Even when Bistro Leluco’s three-person kitchen staff isn’t at the very pinnacle of its powers, the food is still pretty terrific. I adored the radicchio salad ($14), especially its use of thin, variegated Castelfranco leaves that Durst soaks to leach out bitterness before tossing in an anchovy-less, Caesar-adjacent dressing. Maybe too much dressing? I still ate every leaf.

Or the flourless chocolate torte ($9), a dense, fudgy block topped with whipped cream speckled with pulverized coffee beans. Format lets the dessert down a bit — it looks like a simple brownie. Considering how willing Durst is to embrace baking (something many non-pastry chefs will go to excruciating lengths to avoid), I have to give him a pass here, mainly because it’s a very good brownie.


When Bistro Leluco’s menu is firing on all the tiny kitchen’s single-digit number of burners, it’s a contender for the best restaurant on this side of the Fore River. Take the Parisienne gnocchi ($30), another French bistro classic. Here it’s reimagined to incorporate puffy, choux-based dumplings, Romano cheese and Tibbetts Mushroom Co. maitake mushrooms, along with a wild Maine nettle-and-caramelized onion soubise.

You don’t have to take my word for how savory and well-composed this dish is, how it effortlessly unites the semicasual cooking of France with Maine ingredients. No, instead, I’ll leave that to my expert server, the same person who not only knew offhand that Ramazzotti was Milanese, but also that the coulotte steak I mentioned previously was “a sirloin cut from the top of the thigh.”

“OK. Get ready. They bake those brown, fluffy little dumplings in butter,” my server told me, her eyes getting wider as she continued. “Then they add a grown-adult-sized chunk of brie and a whole mess of (red) watercress on top. I’m not just saying this because I work here, but I have literal dreams about that dish.”

Now, reader, I have started having those same dreams. You probably should, too.

Parisienne gnocchi with maitake mushrooms at Bistro Leluco. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

RATING: ****
WHERE: 347 Cottage Rd., South Portland. 207-536-1690.
SERVING: Tuesday to Saturday, 5–9 p.m.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers: $7-$21, Main dishes: $29-36
NOISE LEVEL: Grandma’s bridge club
VEGETARIAN: Some dishes
BAR: Beer, wine and cocktails

BOTTOM LINE: While Portland wasn’t looking, its sister across the bridge has sprouted its own restaurant scene full of creative, small-capacity venues. The charming, 36-seat Bistro Leluco is one of them, and without any preamble to speak of, has emerged as one of SoPo’s newest culinary stars. Co-owners Michelle Trizzino and Antonio Rappazzo “touched every inch of the space” that once housed mom-and-pop Italian joint Enio’s and have transformed it into a spiffy Mediterranean (but really mostly French and Italian) bistro. Cocktails are very good, but the star here is chef Will Durst’s menu that seamlessly brings together New England ingredients and European cooking. Unmissable dishes like puffy, ultra-cheesy Parisienne gnocchi and superb steak à poivre with house-smoked fingerling potatoes match up well with the restaurant’s eclectic, affordable wine list. Not sure what to order? Ask a server. They’re friendly and really know their stuff.


Ratings follow this scale and take into consideration food, atmosphere, service, value and type of restaurant (a casual bistro will be judged as a casual bistro, an expensive upscale restaurant as such):

* Poor
** Fair
*** Good
**** Excellent
***** Extraordinary

The Maine Sunday Telegram visits each restaurant once; if the first meal was unsatisfactory, the reviewer returns for a second. The reviewer makes every attempt to dine anonymously and never accepts free food or drink.

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:
Twitter: @AndrewRossME

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: