Riffs on Ribollita
Occasionally I consider going to Ribollita—an old Portland standby that still packs them in--but don’t very often because thinking about its cramped quarters nearly gives me fits of claustrophobia. Yet for others it’s the lure of rustic Italian fare—no New Age Italian here-- that is so appealing like hearty homemade pastas and gutsy entrees at moderate prices served in a cozy-café kind of ambiance.
But there I was on a busy Saturday evening recently with a 7:30 reservation. I was in the mood for solid comfort food, Italian style, something that Ribollita usually delivers so well.
We arrived on time, but our table wasn’t ready, which left us to fidget standing at the front door. Ribollita does not have a bar--a fatal flaw for a restaurant looking to maximize its bottom line or to offer its patrons a comfortable segue to the dining room.
Fortunately we were shown to a table in five minutes. But the space is so tight that navigating this tiny dining room requires amazing feats of contortion. My chair was wedged against a piece of molding protruding about five inches from the wall, leaving me no choice but to sit as though I had been strapped into a disco chair.
No more complaining, I said to myself, determined to enjoy chef/owner Kevin Quiet’s highly regarded cooking.
The waitress came to us right away to recite the day’s specials. She began a rather prosaic soliloquy of the night’s highlights when a discussion of wine should have preempted her menu recitation. We took a few moments to study the list. It’s a good selection of Italian wines but one that curiously lacked any vintage information. We settled on a Chianti Classico ($28), vintage, if any, unknown until it arrived showing 2008. It was very good.
I already knew that I wanted to have the gnocchi, which were prepared with sugar snaps and pan-seared slices of prosciutto. The true test of an Italian restaurant is its interpretation of these precious dumplings. The best are alla Romana, light and lingering.
My dinner mate ordered the romaine salad with gorgonzola, walnuts and pancetta as a starter followed by fettuccine Alfredo, a time-honored if not archaic dish that most chefs can prepare blind folded. I started off with salt-cod fritters followed by the gnocchi.
A basket of focaccia arrived with good olive oil and our first courses arrived in about 15 minutes.
The salad was a monumental portion attractively presented and quite flavorful. It could have fed all of Occupy Maine, just a few blocks away.
My fritters were a problem. They were beautifully cooked, crispy on the outside, but the filling of potato and salt cod was unbalanced with an overabundance of the background ingredient with very little hint of cured cod. They could have passed as plain cod cakes.
By 8:30 our main courses were still in the kitchen. The wine bottle was empty, the breadbasket depleted, and the first courses long gone.
Something was amiss in the kitchen. I noticed that the chef was toiling solo, not a sous chef or kitchen assistant in sight. We waited patiently in our dining snuggery for the food to arrive.
My gnocchi, as it turned out, were disappointing. They were pan seared, rather than being gently poached, and perhaps overworked in the process resulting in a gummy, tough plateful of gnocchi. The wands of sugar snaps and prosciutto saved the dish. The best rendition in Portland is at Cinque Terre.
My dinner mate’s fettuccine looked to be soused in a bowl of skimmed milk instead of the classic sauce gliding over the pasta in a richness of cream, butter and Parmesan.
Dessert was the best dish of the evening-- house-made fig ice cream that was thick with creamy goodness lanced by perfect additions of fresh fig.
Chefs have their off nights indeed. Had it not been for a preamble cocktail at the nearby Hugo’s before dinner where we ordered one of their brilliant bar snacks of lobster crackers, dinner out would have been an evening to forget.
John Golden makes no bones about sharing his opinion. If you'd like to share yours, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.