Down East 2013 ©
Maria’s, one of Portland’s longest-running restaurants, is something of an anomaly in today’s forward thinking restaurant world. Italian restaurants specializing in red sauce topped food are a dying breed. At Maria’s the torch still flares.
At a time when the city wasn’t such a food town, a place like Maria’s held ground. But for now if you’re looking for a totally novel experience, a step back to another culinary era, Maria’s will not disappoint. The only problem is the food isn’t that good. And I wonder if it ever was?
My last visit was about five years ago. I went with friends who were regulars. As I recall we dined on decently prepared Neapolitan-Roman-Florentine-Americanized fare circa 1950s.
Visually, the décor at Maria’s is a conundrum of kitsch. Also I find the physical layout of the restaurant very off putting. There are no windows anywhere and you feel like you’ve entered into a tomb with no way out.
Its location between Cumberland Avenue and Portland Street is smack in the middle of the city’s most compromised neighborhood, where police cars cruise like limos keeping the peace.
The entry hall is a grotto like space cluttered with tacky Neapolitan decorations. Then up a stairway into a long hall I found myself in a dark passage with no signs of a dining room until the very end where two French doors lead you into a red bar and then the main room.
Once in the dining room, which has about 20 tables, I was immediately overcome by a strange odor: a blend of charred garlic and Lysol.
The decor continues in the same mood with more gilded frames, sundry statues and sculptures, and hackneyed water color depictions of Venetian canals perched on stucco walls painted a rosy pink. The tacky chandeliers offer little light and the rubberized burgundy colored tablecloths wrapping the square tables are a convenient foil if your red sauce happens to overflow its bounds.
The kitchen has a view of the dining room through this unusual half wall of glass with a vintage white porcelain and chrome deli case protruding through the wall holding some wines and cheese.
I looked at the menu but didn’t quite know where to begin so we both ordered Negroni’s -- that wonderful Compari based cocktail that is a delight if made well, with hints of orange, vodka or gin based, and a splash of sweet vermouth. What we received was a watered down rendition that looked like Cool-aide in an old-fashion cocktail glass.
The menu offers a basic lineup of veal and chicken with permutations of antipasti for starters. My dinner mate started with stratcciatella, a Roman style egg drop soup. It was tasty enough, and the broth had nice heft and flavor. To me it looked like a bowl of farina.
I had the Portobello mushroom--a monumental portion, all brown and red. Before leaving home for dinner I had been watching the Food TV show, Iron Chef, where the main ingredient for the competing chefs (Wolfgang Puck vs. Morimoto ) was an ostrich egg—a large very hard-shelled egg that required a hammer to crack open. I was reminded of it because that’s what I needed to break through this dish, piled high with nondescript tomato chunks covering an enormous mushroom cap that had virtually mummified.
So far, the a la carte order of garlic bread was the best dish on the menu.
Otherwise, the entrée choices were mostly variations of veal scallops or chicken.
I chose something called Veal Antonio. As far as I could make out it was sautéed veal scallops drenched in a dull brown sauce, probably canned, and doused with wine, mushrooms, garlic, olives, and a heavy layer of diced tomatoes. My friend had meatballs and spaghetti, passable enough but hardly worth toting the inevitable care package that resulted from a portion that was humongous.
Accompanying the veal was a vainglorious pile of spaghetti walloped by a tie-dye of tomato sauce, which did overflow onto the rubber tablecloth.
For dessert we both chose the canoli. Here I thought we’d get the classic Italian confection done right. But with its filling marred by shredded coconut it was pure blasphemy. Coconut in a canoli?
I wasn’t expecting to be wowed by my dinner at Maria’s but rather I was in the mood for classic Italian American cooking. Unfortunately my curiosity went unheralded at this relic from a bygone era.
John Golden makes no bones about sharing his opinion. If you'd like to share yours, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.