Refined John Conte is not, but Maine’s most temperamental, uh, chef knows a thing or two about seafood and pasta.
Texts and photographs by Ralph Raffio
[T]here is no sign out front of 148 South Maine Street in Rockland. The bunker-like structure is kept darkened, its windows and entryway willfully obscured. Should you be brave of heart and venture inside between the hours of 5 and 8 p.m., two things will greet you: a woman bearing a wary eye, and the enticing aroma of sautéing garlic. On your right will be a large green chalkboard listing a number of different menu items, and just beyond this a small, oddly appointed dining room. To the left, a half-open door leads to a highly chaotic kitchen.
Legend has it that if you know what’s good for you, you will turn neither your attention nor your curiosity leftward. Just leave the kitchen — and the man inside it — be. This man does not wish to chat idly or shake hands or listen to how you discovered this unusual place. He isn’t interested in your accolades, however well intentioned, and he doesn’t want to be your best friend, either.
All the man wants is to feed you. After that, he would just as soon be left alone.
Foreboding as this all may sound, Conte’s 1894 is, in fact, Maine’s nuttiest, kitschiest, most confounding place to snag a delicious, bountiful, Italian-style meal. John Conte himself could be the state’s most gifted seafood cook. To dine at Conte’s does, however, require a highly developed sense of both irony and humor. From the fishnets and nautical junk piled high outside to the peculiarly attired mermaid in the entry hall, the animatronic Dean Martin doll presiding over the dining room like a mayor to the proprietor-painted artwork on the walls, this is John Conte’s world. And there are rules.
First, do not expect to be fawned over by an adoring wait staff angling for a good tip; the hearty, outspoken women here are more apt to tell you where to go if you step out of line. Though Conte’s stated operating hours go to 8 p.m., visitors risk going home hungry by arriving later than 7:30ish. Why? Because the man in the kitchen, an iconoclast if ever there was one, might simply decide that he has already had quite enough excitement for one evening. The chalkboard in the hallway is the only menu, and decisions must be made standing upright and before being seated. Oh, and bring cash. It’s the only form of payment that holds sway.
All the man wants is to feed you. After that, he would just as soon be left alone.
Neat freaks should probably steer clear of Conte’s. In 2002, while operating at its original location on Rockland’s waterfront, then-harbormaster John Trumble charged that Conte’s rough-and-tumble appearance was “detrimental to development” of the city’s harbor. “What has been called unique here,” Trumble wrote about Conte’s shabby appearance in a letter to the city manager, “is a junkyard anywhere else in the city.”
Conte packed up and moved to his current location in 2010, but proudly took his nautical “junkyard” motif with him. “You can’t define beauty,” he says. “Some people would throw away a broken lobster crate or a rusted chain. I think they’re beautiful.”
Attentive readers may have noticed that the terms “restaurant” and “chef” have been carefully avoided. That’s because Conte won’t hear of it.
“Chefs today are nothing but a bunch of punks,” Conte growls, a pair of big steel tongs in one hand and a hot iron pan filled with sea scallops and shrimp and salmon and a rich garlic sauce in the other. “I hate chefs. They think they invented the stove.
“You insult me when you call me one, you know,” he adds. “And I’m a fishmonger, not a restaurant operator. I buy fresh fish every day and then I cook it for whoever shows up here at night.”
Conte has an uncanny knack for preparing all types of seafood to perfection. His cooking style boils down to three things: red, white, and huge. Entrées include as much homemade bread as you can eat, plus a huge bowl of salad, both of which will be on the newspaper-lined table when you are seated. Of the dozen or so different menu items Conte prepares daily — using fresh seafood only, as there is no freezer on the premises — most can be had either with some type of tomato sauce or simply with garlic and oil. Individual entrées such as zuppa di pesce or jumbo day boat sea scallops or cioppino or lobster fra diavolo are served over lots of pasta and inexplicably priced from $17.80 to as high as $24.80 or thereabouts. Entrées are so large that they come on serving platters, not on plates. Much-sought-after take-out containers aren’t held out back with other supplies; they’re stacked right inside the dining room for easy access.
Conte doesn’t demand rigid consistency of himself, and so every detail on the plate (the pasta, for example) may not be perfect every time. And he completely ignores dining-out trends. “I have no idea what other restaurants are doing,” he says. How could he? Conte works 365 days a year. The last time he had any time off was during a hospital stay — and that was five years ago. The man hasn’t eaten in another restaurant for around a quarter century.
“If he couldn’t stand at his stove and cook, he’d be lost,” says Jeannie Levensaler, a waitress at Conte’s for fifteen years. “He belongs right here.”
[I]n 2010, Anthony Bourdain observed Conte in his kitchen and prominently featured him on his Travel Channel food show, No Reservations, but few such encroachments are allowed. Conte works alone here. He prepares every meal, bakes every loaf of bread, cleans most of the dishes, pots, and pans, and even scrubs the floors. His reputation is that of an ornery, churlish crank whom you do not want to get on the wrong side of. Which is true; he is and you don’t. But he can also be extraordinarily shy and generous to a fault. It doesn’t take Gordon Ramsay to figure out that the portion size-to-price ratio here at Conte’s is to the customer’s advantage, not the house’s.
“People know they’re not going to get ripped off here, that they’ll get their money’s worth,” says Levensaler. “He just gives the food away.”
Conte knows he could pile half the amount of food onto a platter and charge pretty close to the same price. He just won’t. “I told you, this isn’t a restaurant,” he barks. “If it was about money, I’d need to have my head examined. Don’t you think I know that? People are hungry, and I feed them the best way I know how. That’s it.”
“I have no idea what other restaurants are doing,” he says. How could he? Conte works 365 days a year.
Conte’s generosity shows up in other ways. “I went to him for advice on what I could do to stoke volume in my small pizza joint, figuring he might give me a tip or two,” says Bill Gloede of Spruce Head Pizza in South Thomaston. “Next thing I know, he’s in my store, scanning the shelves and checking out my kitchen. He left me with probably a half-dozen ideas, then got back to me with a half-dozen more. I don’t know many other guys who would do that. He’s a prince.”
A prince with some very loyal customers.
“Conte’s is the one place we always go when we’re in Maine,” says James Onderdonk of Savoy, Illinois. He and his wife, Mary, once a restaurant reviewer in Virginia, first discovered Conte’s more than a decade ago while touring the state by motorcycle. Every year since, they’ve returned to Rockland — just to eat at Conte’s. “The first time we stumbled in — literally, because then it was a little shack on pilings, half-falling into the harbor — we couldn’t believe it,” Onderdonk recalls. “Back-talking help, salad dressing in Styrofoam cups, fantastic seafood served on family-size platters, except you got a whole platter to yourself! Conte’s defies logic, economy, and other known principles of the dining-out universe. Well worth the 2,200-mile round trip from Illinois.”
Conte never married. Except for a three-year stint in the military from 1962 to 1965 — he was a cryptographer with the now-defunct Army Security Agency — his whole life has been about feeding people. He speaks fondly of his early years growing up in Mt. Kisco, New York, and of his family’s fish markets, restaurants, and other related businesses (his godfather once ran New York’s famed Fulton Fish Market). “There’s not a day goes by that I don’t think, as I’m cooking, about the back room of the fish market where I grew up,” he says.
During the twenty-one hours a day that his dining room is not open, Conte spends his time prepping for service, devouring books on history and art, watching movies on loan from the Rockland Public Library and elsewhere, listening to music, and caring for Asa, his dog and perhaps closest living companion.
“I love my stove the way I love my dog,” Conte says a bit wistfully. “And you know what? I really love my dog.”
Conte’s claim that he is not a chef might easily be dismissed as folly. But on the notion that he doesn’t operate a restaurant, the man might actually have a point. Clearly, making money isn’t a top priority at this enterprise. And how many restaurants don’t have a cash register, printed menu, wine list, Web site, or Facebook page? Appetizers? Nope, Conte’s 1894 (that’s the year his grandfather emigrated to the United States from Italy, by the way) doesn’t have those. Coffee or tea service? Uh-uh. Desserts? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. There are tables and chairs and silver and glassware. Maybe that’s what makes this place a restaurant.
“I guess you gotta be pretty confident to have the guts not to have a sign,” Conte sighs, admitting that this particular lack of convention costs him a lot of business. “But I’m almost seventy years old, what do I care? The people who get this place get it, the ones who don’t, don’t.
“And they never will.”
Ralph Raffio authors the award-winning food blog Mister Meatball. He is the former editor in chief of Restaurant Business magazine.