[T]o experience authentic porchetta, that succulent rolled pork roast cooked to crispy-skinned perfection, you can debone a piglet, tie the meat, and toss it in a fiery pit the way the Roman soldiers did. Or you can head to Boothbay Harbor, climb a flight of stairs to the candlelit dining room of Ports of Italy, and order it off the menu with homemade focaccia and your favorite drink.
Located above a jewelry studio one block from this fashionable fishing town’s wooden wharfs and vibrant waterfront, Ports of Italy specializes in the kinds of meals you might find in the old country: handcrafted pasta, imported meats and cheeses, whole-baked fish, and other classic Italian fare made the way that owner Sante Calandri remembers his mother cooking it when he was growing up in Perugia. He calls it “mama food.”
As a teenager, Calandri spent his summer holidays waiting tables and knew he was destined for a restaurant career — but he didn’t want to cook. “The chef at the finest restaurant in my town, he said, ‘Sante, do you want to work in the kitchen or stay on the floor?’” Calandri recalls, laughing. “I said, ‘The kitchen? They work so hard. I will stay on the floor. Thank you very much.’”
After moving to New York in his early 20s, he got a job as a dishwasher in Rockefeller Square, eventually working his way up to maître d’ at BiCE, an upscale restaurant in midtown Manhattan. In 2010, he set out to find a place of his own. The cost of opening a restaurant in New York was too high, so when the Boothbay Harbor space popped up in an Internet search, he thought, “Why not?”
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From May through October, when Ports of Italy is open, Calandri can be found directing staff, seating guests, and zipping around the dining room, outdoor deck, and bar with large plates of saucy pasta that he mixed, rolled, and cut by hand. During the off season, he lives in New Jersey with his family.
His chef, Fabrizio Ventricini, grew up in Rome and spent most of the past three decades cooking in Italian restaurants out West before semi-retiring in Florida. Three years ago, when the restaurant that employed him suddenly closed, a friend put him in touch with Calandri, whose original chef was stuck in Argentina after being denied a work visa three days before Port of Italy’s spring opening. “It was serendipitous,” Ventricini says.
Like Calandri, Ventricini learned to cook by helping his mother, and he frequently returns to Rome for inspiration. “I do a lot of Roman cooking,” he says. “The pollo chicken with peppers and onions and sausage is one of my favorites. For the pasta carbonara, we get all the good cheeses from Italy to do it as authentically as possible. People love it. I put it on the menu, and it is always gone.”
“In Italy, we all grew up with mama food,” explains Calandri in a lilting accent. “We love to cook. We love to eat. It is a different culture. On Sunday, we sit at the table and eat for three or four hours. We drink the wine. We talk. All the mamas cook great.”
But I couldn’t resist the porchetta, a variation of roast suckling pig that is held in reverence by modern Italians. The roast is displayed on a linen-draped sideboard, where it is surrounded by platters brimming with antipasto vegetariano — roasted eggplants, zucchini, asparagus, beets, and tomatoes — and herb-flecked white beans. The roast arrived tender and hot and saturated with a sop-worthy sauce. So did my friend’s agnolotti di vitello, handmade veal- and pork-stuffed ravioli in a wild mushroom cream sauce drizzled with truffle oil. This is food meant to be savored — and that’s what we did. After debating whether we had room for dessert, we shared a creamy dish of chocolate gelato.
In no rush to go anywhere, we sat back and enjoyed the buzz of conversation rising over the romantic Italian ballads playing in the background. At one table, a waiter leaned over a platter of fish, expertly deboning it while diners looked on. At another, a steaming sack of freshly baked bread arrived with a dish of olive oil speckled with salty olives. We watched as other guests twirled forkfuls of spaghetti and sampled wedges of tender veal and potato dumplings.
Then we gathered our belongings and our leftovers and descended the stairs to the port of Boothbay Harbor, where we took our time, peeking in the windows of darkened boutiques and gift shops on Commercial Street. We paused on the wharf to listen to the fishing boats creak against the wooden docks and gaze at the moonlight dancing on the water, and then, sated and happy, we headed home.
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