A Wharf Street restaurant offers Mediterranean elegance in the heart of the Old Port.
- By: Michaela Cavallaro
On a weekend night in the heart of winter, Cinque Terre is humming. Though it's bitter outdoors, the former warehouse is warm and cozy. Patrons are deep in conversation over glasses of red wine, and the kitchen, visible through an opening under a striking copper hood, bustles with activity. Dan Kary, who owns the restaurant on Portland's cobblestoned Wharf Street with his wife, Michelle Mazur-Kary, refers to its style as "casual elegance," and he's not far off. The tables are covered in pristine white linens, but the settings are unfussy; diners have no need to fear the use of the wrong fork drawing a server's scornful glance. The large, nearly square dining room's past as a repository for nautical charts is evident in the worn wood floors and battered brickwork, which is accented by walls of deep, dusky blue. Comfortable banquettes are upholstered with striped fabrics in Tuscan pastels, the results of Dan Kary's collaboration with Windemere Studios, a local design firm.
At a restaurant like Cinque Terre, the setting is more important than most, since you're likely to spend some significant time nestled in one of those banquettes, or at an intimate table in the small second-floor balcony. At Cinque Terre, you see, the menu is structured around the expectation that, in the traditional Italian style, diners will eat four to five small courses in a leisurely fashion. "You can have a long, extended conversation, and you don't feel like you're being pushed through the meal," explains Lee Skawinski, the restaurant's executive chef, who adds that the restaurant allots about two hours for a typical meal for two.
The name Cinque Terre refers to a spot in northern Italy where five fishing villages - the "five lands" of the region's name - are perched along the rocky coast, with mountains rising up behind them. It's an area that reminds Dan Kary of Portland, "a vibrant city that still has a connection to the sea." At the restaurant Cinque Terre, the food, too, is northern Italian. You won't see heavy sauces or an excess of red sauce, though a recent boar Bolognese over rigatoni was a standout, nor will you see pasta beyond its allotted place in the second course. Skawinski describes the food as "seasoned properly, but garnished lightly." Dining at Cinque Terre can be a bit daunting at first, especially if you plan to follow the restaurant's appetizer, pasta, salad, meat or fish model. There are all those dishes from which to choose, and then you've got to decide whether you want half or full portions; in another nod to Italian tradition, Kary and Skawinski offer diners the option of two sizes for most second courses and entrees. On top of all that comes the pleasurable task of picking a wine that will match them all well. That's where the servers - an experienced group, many of whom have been with the restaurant since it opened in July 2001 - come in. They're young and enthusiastic, and Skawinski claims you'd be hard-pressed to find a group of people who know more about Italian wine - the sole feature of Cinque Terre's 100-bottle list - than they do. The servers make it clear that there are no ironclad rules about arranging your meal. Want a salad and a full portion of risotto? It's yours, delivered with as much care as an appetizer, a small second course, a salad, and a full-sized entree would be. (In a rare perk for vegetarians, a meatless meal is easily assembled from existing menu items.) Still, Skawinski and Kary report that 90 percent of diners choose to follow the four-course-plus model. "They're coming here specifically to have this different kind of experience," says Skawinski. "It's what sets us apart."
Much of the Cinque Terre dining experience is a direct result of Kary's personal preferences. He and Skawinski know each other from the days when Skawinski was executive chef at the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport and Kary was his devoted customer, dining at the inn three out of every four Friday nights. A physician by training - he has an osteopathy practice in Lewiston - Kary loves to travel and explore new cuisines, then try to re-create them at home. And though he's soft-spoken, he is anything but unsure of what he prefers in a restaurant. "I don't like having a napkin unfolded in my lap; it feels like an intrusion," he says. "I like someone who anticipates what I want next. I don't like it when someone brings me a dish and tells me again what I ordered."
What Kary does like are high-quality ingredients prepared with care. The restaurant buys much of its produce from Lisa Turner at Laughing Stock Farm in Freeport, and the creamy goat cheese produced by Sunset Acres Farm in Brooksville is the star of a grilled vegetables and goat cheese appetizer. Prosciutto, buffalo mozzarella, and estate olive oil are among the many items ordered directly from Italy - a part of the job that Skawinski relishes. What he calls the "investigative work" of discovering Italian artisans who export their products to the U.S. is constant, since the menu changes every four or five weeks.
Eating seasonally, while a matter of course in a certain set of fine restaurants, can still be a shock to consumers accustomed to the availability of tomatoes and basil in February, not to mention every other month of the year. But on a wintry night, what better way to start a meal than with an appetizer special of wild mushrooms over smooth, creamy polenta and white truffle oil? The sensation is earthy, woodsy, and warm - especially when it's followed by house-made ravioli filled with rabbit confit and dried cherries in a brown butter sauce. The dishes - full of simple, intense flavors and simply presented - could certainly work in July, but they're all the better when the wind is whistling off Portland Harbor and pedestrians trudge down Wharf Street in overcoats and scarves.
The salads - with nary a mealy hothouse tomato in sight - are inventive and refreshing. Goat cheese fans will swoon for the salad of arugula and goat cheese, warmed so its exterior gains a crunchy light brown crust, with a sherry vinaigrette. As for the entrees, on a recent visit they were straightforward and simple - almost an afterthought following the inventiveness of earlier courses.
"I don't think people feel like they just ate a twenty-two-ounce steak" after a meal at Cinque Terre, says Skawinski. And he's right - after two hours at the table and four courses consumed, dessert is clearly an option. Pastry chef Sarah Higgins offers Italian restaurant staple tiramisu and a simple biscotti plate - a lovely array of not-overly-sweet goodies that comes with an optional glass of Vin Santo - as well as an apple cinnamon creme brulee, panna cotta, and several other desserts.
For Kary, ownership of Cinque Terre - including the building in which it is housed - is a dream come true. No hands-off investor, he spends at least a few nights a week at the restaurant, greeting guests and occasionally indulging in the braised short ribs or the zuppa de pesci, a tomato-and-saffron seafood soup that is a menu mainstay, along with a full-bodied red wine. "I think buying the building demonstrates my commitment" to Cinque Terre, he says. "It's my passion to bring this dining experience to Portland. . . . It's a passion, not a hobby."
Cinque Terre is open for dinner seven nights a week, 5:30 to 9 p.m. Reservations are recommended. Visa, MasterCard, and American Express accepted. 36 Wharf Street, Portland. 207-347-6154.
- By: Michaela Cavallaro