Ode to the Last Great Red-Sauce Joints

Maine's hearty Italian-American eateries still deserve hearty praise.

Maria's Ristorante, in Portland.
By Joe Ricchio
Photographed by Nicole Wolf
From our July 2023 issue

Growing up, I was obsessed with the mob movie Goodfellas, and bringing high-school dates to Maria’s Ristorante, in Portland, in the late ’90s, was the closest I ever got to channeling my inner mafioso. Maria’s was cavernous and dark in its former Cumberland Avenue location, bedecked with chandeliers and busts of Roman emperors. The waiters wore black ties, and Italian opera music played in the background. To impress my dates (and, I suppose, myself), I’d wear a white-on-white shirt and tie under a pinstripe suit, with Dunhill cigarettes in the breast pocket. I always felt right in my element at Maria’s. 

Though the restaurant, which opened in 1960, has a decidedly more casual feel in its new home (1335 Congress St.; 207-772-9232), it retains much of its former charm, and it still dishes up all of the Italian-American red-sauce classics it’s always been known for. The veritable barge of veal parmesan, the spicy zuppa di pesce, and the creamy lobster ravioli are all as delicious as ever. On occasion, they still serve one of the best iterations of tripe Florentine that you’ll find anywhere.

Scenes from Maria’s Ristorante, where the team includes, from left to right, kitchen manager Joe Fagone, server Kitt Tranny, owner Tony Napolitano, and general manager Tiffany Randall.

Brothers Anthony and Greg Napolitano took over the business from their parents, continuing the family tradition for decades. Greg passed away last year, at 54, but Anthony continues to oversee the kitchen. Meanwhile, the list of old-school red-sauce restaurants that have left the scene around him only ever grows: the Village Café, Sportsman’s Grill, and Espo’s, to name a few. In recent years, as Portland’s dining reputation has taken off, many new Italian restaurants have opened, but they’re primarily interested in upscale Old World cooking, not the red-sauce traditions that evolved on this side of the Atlantic. That’s not a knock on the newer places, but sometimes the soul yearns for a proper bowl of spaghetti fra diavolo. 

Fortunately for me, in addition to Maria’s, a handful of other stalwarts are scattered across Maine. Portland has another longtime favorite of mine, Bruno’s Restaurant & Tavern (33 Allen Ave.; 207-878-9511). Tesoro, in the heart of downtown Bangor, changed hands a few years ago but continues to serve up belly-filling piles of noodles (118 Harlow St.; 207-922-2761). DaVinci’s Eatery, in Lewiston, makes a highly recommendable, Italian-sausage-laced house specialty called dirty peas and pasta (150 Mill St.; 207-782-2088). In Windham, Rose’s Italian makes a mean chicken piccata (690 Roosevelt Tr.; 207-892-0010). And meals at Brunswick’s Great Impasta have come with the same complementary garlicky bread knots for nearly 40 years (42 Maine St.; 207-729-5858). As far back as I can remember, these are the sorts of places that always make me happiest. 

April 2024, Down East Magazine

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