Down East 2013 ©
Saint Ambrose said it best in 387 A.D.: When in Rome, do as the Romans do. While Mainers might not be able to experience a walk through the Colosseum or gaze at the Sistine Chapel, thanks to a new restaurant in Bangor we can do at least one thing like the Romans: eat.
Forget your red and white checkered tablecloths, meatballs, and red pepper flake dispensers, icons of the popular (and tasty) American version of Italian cuisine. (Bangorians are still mourning the recent loss of their longtime favorite in this category, Momma Baldacci’s.) At Massimo’s Cucina Italiana across from the courthouse on Hammond Street you won’t find fettuccine alfredo or cheesy garlic bread. Instead you’ll find authentic Roman food from the region of Lazio, Italy, served in what feels like a revamped trattoria complete with tigerwood floors, slate-colored walls, a sleek marble bar, and an all-around, upscale, family vibe.
Massimo Ranni, the namesake and owner of the restaurant, found his way to Maine from Lazio by way of Montclair, New Jersey. Growing up just outside Rome, Ranni was surrounded by food: his grandmother was a baker, his father a butcher. Ranni, thankfully, was a great learner. Taking the skills he acquired in Italy through family and time in the restaurant business, he came to the U.S. in 1997 and eventually opened Trattoria Il Forno and Il Forno Bakery in northern New Jersey. Despite the success, Ranni and his wife, Anne Marie, knew the Garden State was not their home. “We were a little tired of all the fast pace,” he says. “My wife was in the fashion industry, always traveling. We got a little tired of living a little too fast. Enough was enough.”
Bangor offered a slower pace, and in return Ranni and his wife have brought a unique taste of Italy to the Queen City. According to Ranni, the cuisine of Rome and the region of Lazio features hearty pastas and lots of lamb, rabbit, and other meats. “Simple foods,” he insists. “Every town has their own tradition. Like a language, each region speaks a different way with food.”
The language of Lazio rolls off your tongue when you taste the food at Massimo’s. The homemade bread is a heartfelt ciao. Regional specialties like linguine alla carbonara and bucatini all’amatriciana communicate comfort with ease. The spicy shrimp fra diavolo sparks fiery passion. The scottadito (baby lamb chops) and the stinco di agnello (braised lamb shank) evoke the pastoral landscape of Lazio through the freshness and tenderness of the meat. The pizza patate, perfect for a light meal or a shared appetizer, is as typical a Roman dish as you can get with a fitting connection to Maine: a pizza topped with potatoes, Fontina cheese, and truffle oil.
The menu changes seasonally, and depending on what’s available day to day, Ranni and his taste-test-informed servers may offer as many as seven specials on one night. “The oxtail,” explains Ranni, “is braised and then finished in tomato sauce. All the meat comes off the bone, and I serve that with pasta.” Continuing to rattle off his special dishes he describes the trippa (tripe), which is “boiled in water for an hour then put in olive oil, spices, and tomato sauce, and cooked for two and a half to three hours. It’s very good for the winter.” A straightforward Italian wine list and a handful of Italian cocktails offer decent pairings for all the dishes.
You can’t really go wrong at Massimo’s. The restaurant’s popularity among Bangor residents — and the fact that Ranni’s busiest season is the winter — proves it. “We have a lot of local people,” notes Ranni. “Most of the people who come into the restaurant are people that cook . . . they know about food. And when they come in they are open to knowing a different kind of food.”
For dinner table travelers, it’s a joy to get to know Ranni and his land of origin through his food. And he has plans for one sweet, final touch: gelato. At his bakery in New Jersey he made more than fifty kinds of the Italian ice cream and sorbet from scratch. Once he solves some technical glitches, Bangor residents and visitors alike will have more than fifty new ways to eat their way to Italy right here at home.
Massimo’s Cucina Italiana is located at 96 Hammond Street in Bangor. Open Monday through Thursday, 5 to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 9:30 p.m. Wheelchair accessible. 207-945-5600. www.massimoscucinaitaliana.com 
The owners of Rockland’s Black Bull Tavern have opened up The Boathouse Restaurant and Raw Bar (58 Ocean St., 207-596-0600) in the former MBNA boathouse that boasts a 340-degree view of the water. The year-round restaurant, with 125 seats outdoors for warmer temps and more than fifty seats indoors, focuses on classic Maine seafood from boiled lobsters to fried clams.
Sea cucumbers, June bugs, and moose heart. Sound bizarre? Andrew Zimmern of the Travel Channel’s show Bizarre Foods With Andrew Zimmern thought so, too. Zimmern traveled to Maine where he filmed an underground dinner club known as Deathmatch serving up some of the aforementioned food oddities. The show, which also stopped at the foodie haven Rabelais Books, is scheduled to air on November 18 at 10 p.m.