A little bit of Milan in the heart of Portland
PORTLAND, Maine - The maccheroni pomodoro at Paciarino, a brand new pasta restaurant here, is a simple, perfect dish. Similar to rigatoni, maccheroni is handmade daily in the restaurant's big open kitchen. The sauce, bright red and summertime sweet - even in winter - is made with garlic, plenty of olive oil, fresh basil, and the best imported canned tomatoes. This specialty comes out in a big warm bowl topped with grated Parmesan and a drizzle of fruity olive oil. Italian soul food.
Husband and wife team Fabiana De Savino and Enrico Barbiero are from Milan. They moved to Maine last spring and opened Paciarino (pronounced poch-ah-ree-no) in early January. Weekdays and Saturday, the lunch crowd (the spot isn't open for dinner) lines up all over the big, airy space - a former hair salon a few blocks from the bay, in the brick and cobblestone Old Port. Chunks of bread in one hand and forks in the other, diners dig into plate after plate of the couple's pasta - eggplant ravioli, lasagna alla Bolognese, pumpkin ravioli with butter and sage, tagliatelle with meatballs, ravioli with walnut sauce, maccheroni alla arrabiata. Customers are leaning against the bar and sitting at wooden tables set with slate placemats. You can hear a surprising amount of Italian language among the diners and everyone seems a little more cheerful than they did when they walked in. Paciarino is Italian slang for the special food that mothers and grandmothers prepare on Sundays. The name suits the place.
Barbiero and De Savino had owned restaurants in Milan. "It was tough there," says De Savino. "Enrico worked until 3 a.m. most days." The couple moved to Maine for a quieter life. "Our little daughter Berenice is just 6 years old," she says. "To grow up in Milan the way it is now would be so hard. The city is polluted - it smells like car exhaust - and it's not safe. When I walk, I look over my shoulder. There is no place outside for a child to play."
The couple settled here after a monthlong trip one fall, when they rented a place on Portland's Eastern Promenade overlooking the bay and islands. Everyday they watched the sun rise and set. De Savino says, "We love the colors here and we love the sea."
Now she's making pasta the way that she always has. She learned to cook from her grandmother - Nonna Aurelia. "My grandmother, she was from a small town in Bologna, and she lived with us, and every day she made pasta," she says. "She woke up very early in the morning and made her Bolognese sauce. It filled the house with a smell of garlic, rosemary, sage, and cloves. Oh, my grandmother! I loved this smell so much at lunch and dinner - but not so much before I had my coffee."
To go with the Bolognese, there was potato gnocchi, tagliatelle, lasagna, or maltagliati (irregularly cut noodles), all made by hand. De Savino learned how to do it the traditional way, but at the restaurant she uses a machine. "By hand is good for at home, but here we need consistency," she says. "The machines, they are tools to make a good product for everybody, but still it is by hand, just with tools."
After two months in business, Paciarino is thriving. De Savino and Barbiero make it look easy. They flirt with the customers and offer endless samples of their carefully curated Italian provisions - wild fennel pate, spicy peperoncino pate, balsamic vinegars, Ligurian olives, capers packed in salt, and favorite wines.
They already have big plans for the spring and summer. They'll start serving dinner in May. De Savino says, "It will be appetizers, salads, and maybe some roasts, but we will still specialize in pasta." In the fall there will be cooking classes.
Patricia Tattoli, mother of De Savino, and grandmother to little Berenice, has been visiting for the last few weeks from Milan. Apparently extreme restaurateuring runs in the family. When De Savino was 19, Tattoli moved to India and opened an Italian restaurant in Khajuraho. Tattoli, plodding around the restaurant in apron and Ugg boots, making sauces, drizzling olive oil on everything, and humming along to Italian pop star Mina on the sound system, is big and generous in every way. She is paciarino in person.
I wonder if she knows that. "You want to know what is paciarino?" she asks. "Paciarino is when the food is very, very nice. When it is made with love, with amore. Like the food here today, the food we make - very, very good paciarino."
Paciarino, 468 Fore St., Portland, Maine, 207-774-3500.