Yesterday was the kind of day that foodies dream of—a whole afternoon devoted to food, friends, and family. As I mentioned in a previous post, my friend Kate Johnson, my daughter Shannon, and I planned to meet in Portland for a belated birthday celebration for me. We all looked forward to spending the afternoon together, but we were also eager to try some of the places mentioned in a recent New York Times piece. Since I was the “birthday girl” I got to choose where we would go.
Now, even though I’m a right-brained person and, as a rule, rather disorganized, when it comes to food, I am sharp and focused. I’ve learned the hard way, through some miserable meals, that eating out is too important to leave to chance. Using the Times piece as a guide, Clif helped me put together a little personal foodie trail map through Portland. We would start out at Paciarino, an Italian restaurant, make our way to Standard Baking Company. for dessert, and then proceed to the East End to visit Rabelais Books, Deans Sweets, and Micucci Grocery Co., which specializes in Italian food. (I’m sure readers will notice a decided preference for Italian food, which I must admit is one of my favorite cuisines.)
We all met at Paciarino, a small, friendly place on Fore St. Their lunch menu is quite limited, and on the day we went, all the sauces were tomato based, and ravioli was prominently featured. So, I ordered ravioli with a meat sauce, and what a dish that turned out to be! My mouth waters as I remember it. Never have I tasted such smooth ravioli and such equally smooth tomato sauce. Really, if I had been by myself at home, I would have been tempted to lap my plate. As it was, I asked for more bread so I could sop up the rest of that wonderful, mellow sauce, lighter than I would have believed possible for a sauce made with tomatoes. Kate also had the ravioli, and she called the filling “delicate” and the meat sauce “savory” with “such depth.” Shannon had an unfilled pasta—whose name escapes me—with some of the same sauce we had on the ravioli. The next day, Shannon would remark that she was still thinking about that pasta and sauce, remembering the taste.
Paciarino also sells pasta and sauces to go, and for $13 I bought a package of Ravioli Milano as well as some of that smooth tomato sauce, this time enhanced by meatballs. I figured Clif deserved a treat as well, since he was working at home while I was munching my through Portland. The official name of the sauce is Sug O Di PolPettine. There was enough sauce and ravioli for two generous portions, and as Kate pointed out, this was a very affordable treat. “Not much more than a meal for two at McDonald’s,” Clif would say later. But oh, so much better, which proves that delicious food can also be affordable.
After good wine and a good meal, we were all in a jolly mood, and we headed to Standard Baking Company for dessert. The sun was shining and the weather was crisp but warm. A perfect day for dawdling and detours. Into a kitchen shop we went, to look longingly at expensive kitchenware, less expensive gadgets, and other cooking folderol to tempt a foodie. Then we wandered into Gelato Fiasco, at my insistence, to “sample” some of the finest, creamiest gelato made in Maine. Naturally, we did more than sample. Finally we arrived at Standard Baking Company for tea and pastries, a chocolate hazelnut torte for me, just as rich as it out to be.
Now, at this point, I should have been “full as a tick,” as my father would have said. Kate and Shannon certainly were. But being a prodigious eater as well as a good one, I was ready for more, especially as we took a bit of a break by walking to the East End to Rabelais Books, a shop that specializes in food-related books. Here again, there were many temptations, and although the store is small, within a span of five minutes I saw about ten books I would have liked to add to my growing library of food literature and cookbooks. I settled on Far Flung and Well Fed by the late R. W. Apple Jr., whose work I have long admired.
Next door to Rabelais Books is Dean’s Sweets, which sells dark chocolate truffles. Did I have one? Of course I did, a maple-filled one, a perfect little mouthful.
Onward we went, to the astonishing Micucci Grocery Co., a good-sized store chock-a-block full of imported Italian food, some of it familiar and some of it quite exotic, at least to this central Maine eater. To dazzle and tempt the palate there were pastas, cheeses, olives, bread, canned tomatoes, and much, much more. I bought a wonderfully soft bread, made at the store, and a flaky orange pastry. The big squares of pizza were also tempting, but enough was enough, even for me. My plan is to return to Portland in the very near future, and start with Micucci, so that I can spend quite a lot of time there when my stomach is not so full. I’d love to start sampling some of the various imported food and perhaps even have a piece of the pizza.
Even after the eating day we had, there are so many places in Portland we’ve yet to try: Two Fat Cats, Bresca, Evangeline, and The Front Room, to name a few. I wish them all well, and I hope they can make enough to thrive in this uncertain economy.
At the end of this happy day, after I said goodbye to Kate and Shannon, I walked around the city for a little while, carrying my bags of goodies, things I had bought and presents from Kate, lovely placemats with autumn leaves and a banana bread with roasted pecans. (No, I was not too full to have some of this delicious bread when I got home that night. However, I did abstain from the ravioli and the sauce.)
The autumn light was slanting between buildings old and new, on pavement and on cobblestones. Fallen leaves, mostly yellow, lay scattered between empty black café chairs and tables, which will soon be stored until next summer. Autumn in Maine, a lovely but melancholy time of year, a dazzling end to summer that with increasing each year feels all too short. What a comfort to think that none of the places we visited are seasonal, that they will be there through gray, austere November, through the deep cold of winter, to our fitful spring, and to the brief warmth of summer, and finally back to beautiful but melancholy autumn. Food to delight the palate through every season and to comfort us as well.