Little Village Bistro
65 Gardiner Rd., Wiscasset
By Joe Ricchio
Photographed by Douglas Merriam
Chef Tony Bickford made a brilliant decision when he settled on his native Wiscasset as the home for his first independent venture, Little Village Bistro. Centrally located off Route 1 in a town best known for lobster rolls, Little Village Bistro, with its fine dining menu, has almost no competition for miles. Despite the fact that it offers three seatings per night, I found it a challenge to reserve a table for one on a weekend evening.
Once inside, I realized that I had been in this building before, about 10 years ago, when it was a small Italian-American restaurant called Mark Antony’s, whose owner had a penchant for serenading tables mid-meal. While the layout is familiar, the dining room has been thoroughly renovated by Bickford and a friend. Walls are painted in soft gray-green and decorated with a smattering of old pizza paddles and framed prints of prosaic Maine scenes, like a brook babbling in the woods. It’s simple, and I like that because it keeps the focus on the food and drink. All in all, there are just 38 seats, plus nine perches at the handsome wooden bar.
The menu testifies to Bickford’s affinity for Italian fare, but he prefers to call his cuisine “refined American with strong Italian influence.” Not only does this give him flexibility in creating new dishes, it also allows him to use bold elements such as rosemary oil and fresh ricotta with white balsamic in classic dishes like pappardelle Bolognese, without worrying about purists who would cry sacrilege at anything but mirepoix, slowly cooked meat, and a hint of tomato.
The former chef at the Thistle Inn in Boothbay Harbor, Bickford sets the stage for the meal with his table bread, a style he has been working to perfect for years. It’s essentially the same Italian bread he has enjoyed since childhood, with a crispy exterior, wonderfully comforting spongy interior, and a full flavor that comes from pre-fermented dough. Slathered with a generous amount of soft, salty butter, the bread was so good that I ordered a bowl of sweet sausage minestrone to accompany it. The soup got a nice boost from pancetta, which complemented the tender white beans, and a liberal showering with black pepper.
Before I was seated, the bartender told me that Bickford goes to great lengths to get very fresh seafood, and the effort showed in the Maine crab cakes. Heavy on the meat, with minimal binder, they were sweet and delicate, accompanied by a remoulade that took its inspiration from the creamy chili-sauce-and-mayo dressing of Crab Louie. My other appetizer, crispy fried chicken with honey creole aioli, arrived in the form of crispy golden nuggets. While the flavor was pleasant, I would have appreciated a clearer menu description because I expect “fried chicken” to be on the bone, a significantly different dish.
The wine selection, while spanning the globe, leans heavily towards California and was dominated by mainstream producers like William Hill, Buehler, Cakebread, and Tommasi, to name a few. Available by the glass, the Grenache-driven Côté Mas Rosé Aurore from France’s Languedoc-Roussillon region is a safe bet to accompany the gamut of menu offerings. This includes the star dish of my evening — plump, perfectly seared scallops served over angel hair pasta and laden with a rich, yet remarkably well-balanced smoked butter cream sauce with fresh slivered asparagus and crunchy breadcrumbs.
As I perused the dessert menu, I admired the deft manner with which the servers turned over the dining room for the next seating — a task far more difficult than staggering reservations because the kitchen is pummeled with orders all at once. I opted for the cannoli — crispy shells laced with chocolate ganache and filled with chilled, sweet ricotta subtly flavored with lemon, a fitting end to my “Italian-influenced” meal.
Although I’d sampled as much as I could possibly muster in one sitting, I couldn’t help plotting my return, when I’d tackle other items from the menu like fish and chips, crab-stuffed haddock, or a big bowl of rich, garlicky shrimp scampi over linguine.
With summer traffic backing up on Route 1 through Wiscasset, it’s comforting to know that you can find respite with a short detour. You may even decide there’s no need to travel any farther.