The Next Chapter In the Vignola-Cinque Terre Story
On a recent Friday night the scene at Vignola was impressively frenetic: a packed room of diners illuminating an otherwise dreary rainy evening. I walked in to have dinner at the bar, which had only one seat left, a crammed space that wasn’t too appealing. The hostess suggested that I go to the bar in the next dining room where it would be quieter and more composed.
The next dining room?
Last I knew Vignola only had one dining room. We walked down the wide corridor that used to lead to the rest rooms past the open kitchen. It’s now a passageway that takes you right into Cinque Terre’s space with its two levels of dining rooms.
Vignola and Cinque Terre are now one and the same, a change that occurred last month when Cinque Terre was closed for renovations to unite these sister restaurants.
It’s an unusual move for two restaurants— albeit adjacent to each other and owned by the same chef and team—to join forces into one entity. Since 2006 when Vignola opened in their resplendent space it’s been a mainstay of Old Port dining as has Cinque Terre, which graced our dining shores several years earlier.
Chef Lee Skawinski is generally heralded with bringing fine Italian dining to the city where only red-sauce joints prevailed. With his sous chef Chris Greer, both restaurants have succeeded impressively.
Before, however, it was nice to have both restaurants as options: Vignola for its sleek, raffish décor and trattoria menu of rustic Italian fare compared to the refined grace notes of Cinque Terre’s more formal setting and creative interpretations of stylish Italian cuisine.
Yet I used to take issue that Vignola didn’t offer more pasta on its menu while Cinque Terre did, often a juxtaposition that would have also suited the theme at Vignola.
Such dichotomy no longer exists under a melding of a rambling roof line that houses both establishments now known as Vignola Cinque Terre, a mouthful perhaps but a very tasty one. Their respective websites don’t reflect the change yet.
Both entrances still exist—one on Dana Street and the other off Wharf Street. And I settled in comfortably at Cinque Terre’s bar in a room inhabited by a well-heeled looking crowd.
The menu now has everything: Cinque Terre’s legendary pastas and Vignola’s beautifully thin-crusted pizzas in addition to the complete list of first courses and entrees.
I began with a dish of crispy eggplant slices accompanied by heirloom tomatoes and cubes of the Italian semi-soft cheese Lagrein, not a very well known variety here but quite interesting with its wine-washed flavors.
I was curious about the heirloom tomatoes (in season somewhere in the world), and inquired about their origin At first the waitress said they were from Canada but sous chef Chris Geer realizing that I was dining in the restaurant came out to explain their origin. They’re known as Kumato Olmeca, a tomato developed in Spain that is cultured year round in greenhouses or in the field depending on season and climate.
It’s an intensely flavored tomato—a treat to have this time of year—that has an unusual sweet-sour taste. The eggplant, heavily breaded and fried, was too dry; those juicy tomato wedges saved the dish.
For a main course I chose the grilled branzino, a Mediterranean fish also known as European sea bass or robolo, a very popular fish in Sicily. It's firm yet flaky with lots of flavor. It was served with two perfectly turned yellow –fleshed potatoes, a fennel and radicchio salad and the most delicious tapenade of sundried tomatoes and olives.
If the eggplant was heavy handed, the fish was perfectly cooked and a very successful entrée that went well with the white Piedmontese wine, Gavi, recommended by the waitress.
Vignola-Cinque Terre’s pastry chef Emily Delois offers a subtler interpretation of Italian desserts, which can be mercilessly sweet and sticky.
My pick was a chiffon cake coated in an orange glaze and cream that was just sweet enough and intensely delicious.
Portland diners have not lost a restaurant in this merger. Instead we've gained from a pairing of equals that keeps this former twosome unified into one great dining venue, which I am not shy to proclaim offers the best Italian fare north of Boston.
John Golden makes no bones about sharing his opinions. If you'd like to share yours, email him at email@example.com