Once the darling of Portland’s dining scene, Maria’s has been serving old-style Italian-American fare for more than half a century.
From an historical perspective, Maria’s Restaurant in Portland remains the grande dame of old-school Italian-American cooking in town. But, please, shouldn’t someone tell the old gal to get a new dress? Dowdy? Enough so to give a herding of the human flock the heebie-jeebies.
In business for over 50 years, the interior of Maria’s is awash in Neapolitan kitsch that even a fat purse couldn’t change easily. The same old dusty chandeliers hang like crusty baubles in a prop closet with the backdrop of ancient brocade on the walls that even Mrs. Fisk would have deemed passé. That and the sundry bric-a-brac, Pompeian statuettes on faux marble stands and the deep red linoleum-like cloths covering the tables conjure up an icky visual.
As for the food, well, it’s the best in Portland of its type. By comparison, it makes places like Casa Novello and Espo’s no better than an ersatz Olive Garden. But order carefully from the menu and you’ll dig up the buried treasures of old-style dishes more typical of Boston’s North End eateries. The creamy marinaras are rich and delicious. The classic veal dishes are plentiful and the mozzarella fritter, for instance, is fabulously good, its delicate crisp coating caressing oodles of mozzarella within, all sitting in a luscious, fresh-tasting tomato sauce.
Though I reviewed this establishment several years ago and gave it low marks all around, I owe this visit to reading an item posted on a foodie social media site. There it extolled Maria’s new summer menu as the coming thing. Ultimately the recommendation was pure hype, giving the superfluities of the kitchen’s exalted ways with creamy pesto and majestic saltimbocca. Glacial, ground-breaking news? Hardly. (Must have been a slow gossip day.)
The Napolitano brothers still run the show. Gregory mans the dining room, graciously tending to diners; and Anthony, Jr., is in the kitchen following in father’s footsteps making his dad’s old reliable recipes.
We arrived at the restaurant at the ungodly dinner hour of 5:30 because my frequent dining buddy likes to eat early. At the Portland Street entrance (there’s another one on Cumberland Avenue) with its own parking lot, the building sits like a fortress against the steamy hoi polloi outside. You ring a bell to gain entry and walk into a vestibule where twin doors to the restrooms hit you head on. Upstairs, down a long, dark passage (where you could expect to find gypsy fortune tellers), you instead enter upon a bar area so dour that it would give a hipster mixologist the shingles.
At that hour, as you would expect, the place was empty, but to our surprise the room started to fill up fast. In a certain way it was a relief not to break bread with the Eventide–Central Provisions crowd. And should any diner have mumbled the words locavore, drizzle, sustainable or farm-to-table, the walls would have crumpled from verbal abuse.
As I said the mozzarella fritter should not be missed. The Caesar salad was also very respectable with its creamy, garlicky, anchovy infused dressing over crisp Romaine – leaves, however, that should have been torn into smaller pieces rather than the clapboard-size planks in the bowl. The bread basket, though, held slices from a homemade loaf that had the texture of papier-mâché.
The veal saltimbocca that I ordered was a mixed bag. Neat little rolls stuffed with prosciutto and sage sat in a dark-brown mushroom sauce, nicely enriched with wine and veal stock. At first bite I thought the mushrooms were canned. My dinner mate shook his head emphatically no. But I’m not so sure. If, however, they weren’t, then they should have been. A few of the rolls looked a little rough around the edges as if they had been sitting on the prep counter too long. Still it held savory flavors that were tasty. It was served with a side bowl of angel hair in tomato sauce, cooked way beyond al dente, and as a side dish heavy enough to sink the Queen Mary.
My friend’s chicken parm passed muster, which was a relief since he’s a self-proclaimed authority on all Parmigiana preparations. (It’s good to go to an Italian American restaurant with an Italian American.) The chicken breasts had a very flavorful bread coating and were cooked correctly and properly – luxuriously dressed in piles of tomato sauce and mozzarella. But the breasts were so huge and thick they might have come from condors. A little pounding thin would have done wonders!
Minor quibbles indeed, the meal was substantial, tasty and moderately priced. We weren’t going to have dessert but succumbed to Gregory’s high praise for the house-made gelato, which was made in their fancy new gelato maker. That night it was vanilla with strawberry swirl served with chocolate biscotti.
The gelato was everything Gregory had promised: rich, creamy and delicious and they should brand-market it immediately.
In the final analysis, is Maria’s just a memento of the past? No, it’s more than that – a primeval forest that Portlanders are not ready to give up, a dining shibboleth that still struts along without the help of a striving chef or plates of vertical food and foam. Instead go for the rivers of saltimbocca and scaloppini and other comfy relics from a kitchen that we secretly adore.