Greek and Italian menus from Trattoria Athena and its sister restaurant, Enoteca Athena, enliven Brunswick’s culinary scene.
By Elizabeth Peavey
Photographed by Douglas Merriam
Once upon a time, if you were hungry in Brunswick, your options were limited: a hunk of meat from the Bowdoin Steakhouse, a chocolate éclair from Frosty’s Donuts, or a heap of golden lariats (onion rings) from the Chuck Wagon Restaurant at Cooks Corner. That was about as exotic as it got.
Today, this midcoast town is home to an array of authentic international restaurants — German, Thai, Italian, Mexican, Indian, Japanese — as well as coffee houses and galleries that would have once seemed unimaginable here. In fact, an evening out in Brunswick has something of a storybook quality to it, with clientele lingering in and spilling out of doorways, the smells of spice and garlic and the sound of happy chatter filling the evening air. Two of the major bright spots on this scene are Enoteca Athena and Trattoria Athena, a Greek and Italian wine bar and restaurant, respectively.
Chefs and owners Marc Provencher and Tim O’Brien hadn’t set out to open two places — or even one. O’Brien, who left teaching to sell his homemade pasta at the Bath farmers market, had been looking for a retail space. When he came across Trattoria Athena’s Mill Street location, however, he saw more. He and Provencher (whom he met while cooking at a Greek restaurant in Portland) joined forces and went with a hunch: offer well-made, locally sourced food featuring the types of cuisine they love (Provencher, Greek; O’Brien, Italian), present them side by side — no spillover, no fusion — have fun, and people will respond.
They were right. Since opening in 2010, Trattoria Athena has won raves. Reservations are always recommended; they are a must on weekends at the twenty-eight-seat establishment.
Neither Provencher nor O’Brien is formally trained, but both have restaurant backgrounds and frequently travel to the Old Country to hone their chops. Trattoria Athena tends toward classic, old-school preparations, while Enoteca is more playful. The menus are voluminous, and the specials boards are often crammed with added offerings. Sometimes O’Brien swings by the farmers market to pick up a thing or two, he says, and ends up lugging off two heavy sacks. And he just goes with it.
Enoteca has high ceilings and soaring windows that overlook Maine Street. Much of the furnishings at both restaurants are made from gorgeous reclaimed wood. But Enoteca’s bistro chic is offset with a touch of kitsch here and there — a lamp fashioned out of a green Chianti bottle, a pair of vintage Metaxa bottles in the shape of a man and woman in traditional Greek dress. The clientele ranges from soccer moms discussing the arrival of the new Legos catalog to professors in their formal tweedy wear.
The menu at Enoteca highlights small plates and street food — dolmathes and pizza, salads and sandwiches — as well as pasta and proteins. The complimentary housemade Italian bread almost demands a sample of the Greek dips: taramasalata (mild carp roe and bread puree), skorthalia (a garlicky potato salad) and the htipiti (feta and grilled hot pepper), which delivers a punch of salt followed by a long, slow burn of heat. One could happily dip and sip the evening away here, but that coveted reservation at Trattoria Athena beckons.
Where Enoteca is open and airy, its sister restaurant feels like you’re being nestled inside a velvet-lined box. The walls are moss green, the low-hanging tin ceiling is painted gray, the light is muted. There’s not much more noise than hushed voices and happy murmurs. Mangled pronunciations are fielded with patience at both places, and food is delivered with alacrity. You can’t fake this stuff. These are happy houses.
A meal at Trattoria Athena might begin with a fried sage leaf-anchovy-caper appetizer, a rustic bite that calls out for a slug of good red wine. Fortunately, the list can accommodate any palate and budget. Where you go from there depends on how many notches you want to let out on your belt.
A robust diner will insist on sampling from every menu category, and if so, the Carciofini Fritti (fried artichokes) are a must. Arriving in a paper-lined wire cone, they look like something you might get at the Topsham Fair. That is, until you take a searing bite dipped in the accompanying aioli. You know you should try to restrain yourself and save room, but good luck to you with that.
But you must save room for what might follow: a Tuscan bread salad, with fresh cucumbers; Pizzoccheri al Raccolto, slippery ribbons of buckwheat pasta with foraged mushrooms, fresh spinach, and roasted potatoes, bathed in a cream sauce; savory rabbit dressed with prunes, onions, and wine and served with sautéed greens; and braised goat accompanied by white beans so large you’d trade a cow for them any day. And then there’s dessert. You could always sample traditional tiramisu or baklava, but even a robust diner knows when to call it quits. Finally, it’s time to bring the car around. You just have to hope, after such an enchanting meal, that it hasn’t turned into a pumpkin.