Seacoast restaurants feature pasta in all its traditional and innovative glory
Spaghetti, tortellini, tagliatelle, farfalle, fettuccine, cannelloni, capellini, penne, pappardelle, rigatoni, ravioli, vermicelli, ziti… long, short, curled, folded, rolled, and pinched: the world loves pasta! Some 14 million tons are produced annually across the globe, and while Italy leads the world in consumption, Americans are not far behind. According to a recent study conducted by the National Pasta Association, 77 percent of Americans surveyed said they eat pasta at least once a week, while a third eat it three or more times a week.
It’s estimated there are some 350 varieties of pasta in the world, and an infinite number of ways to prepare them. The basics are simple and inexpensive: flour, egg, salt, and water. But the endless possibilities are mind-boggling, limited only by imagination and creativity. No wonder it’s one of our most favorite foods.
“Pasta is the ultimate comfort food,” says Jethro Loichle, executive chef at the award-winning Ristorante Massimo in Portsmouth. “It was originally poor man’s fare, and a way that someone who didn’t have much could show a lot of effort, and create something delicious and beautiful.
”It’s also a dish of love that often brings family and friends together. “Think about handmaking small little pasta, like orecchiette or gnocchi,” Loichle says. “Think about the time it takes. Someone loves you when they’re making that.”
Loichle exemplifies that passion (and his great love of pasta), at Massimo. The fine-dining restaurant, housed in an historic 1816 custom house building with original stone and brick walls, exposed wood beams, and cozy arched alcoves, sets the bar for Italian cuisine on the Seacoast. The ever-changing menu typically features at least five pasta dishes, and perhaps an additional pasta appetizer or daily special. All the pastas and sauces are handmade; fresh tomatoes are turned into sauce and stored for later use in many of the preparations. Produce comes from local, organic Sandy Hill Farm. Massimo likes to mix it up, creating new combinations based on seasonal ingredients and Loichle’s inspiration, which is keen, resourceful, and inventive. Specials might include Ravioli con Aragosta, a complex ravioli stuffed with leek ash and corn, with a sweet-savory lobster sauce, crunchy green beans, cherry tomatoes, and fresh corn. To produce the unusual leek ash, Loichle heavily chars leeks, puts them in a low-temp oven for 10 hours, and then grinds them fine. This adds a unique umami flavor to the dish.
Seasonal vegetables take center stage in the Tortellini alla Minestrone, enhanced with house-made sausage and a light tomato broth. The Gambretti Aqua Pazza is the essence of less is more: pasta a striking black color from squid ink provides a backdrop to pink shrimp that’s been poached in aqua pazza (“crazy water”), with fresh tomatoes (fresh is key to flavor, Loichle asserts), parsley, and slivers of garlic. One dish you can count on throughout the year is the signature Tagliatelle Carbonara di Lazio, with a deeply-flavored sauce. English peas add freshness and crunch, shaved black truffle adds depth, crispy prosciutto and parmigiano cheese add complimentary saltiness, and an egg yolk sitting on top adds a luscious creaminess to the dish. “We tried to take the menu once,” says Loichle, “and the customers revolted.” We’d protest, too.
The toughest part about dining at the Italian chef-owned Angelina’s Ristorante in Ogunquit, Maine, is decision making. The menu is vast, featuring authentic, freshly made dishes, many passed down from chef-owner David Giarusso’s great grandmother. Choose where to sit: the rambling restaurant includes the main dining area, wine bar, lounge, and an outdoor patio (open in warm weather). Enjoy a beverage (there are about 18 reasonably-priced wines offered by the glass and a full bar), while you make your dinner selections. Consider splurging on the Pasta Mélange. The signature dish is brimming with fresh seafood (scallops, tiger shrimp, lobster) in a garlicky, cheesy cream sauce, served over linguine. Or try the Fresh Maine Halibut Gnocchi if it’s on the menu. The fish is lightly seared and served over homemade gnocchi in a tomato, basil, garlic, and fennel broth with fresh clams and slices of sausage. Of course, there are traditional pasta dishes, including linguine, penne, fettuccine, ziti, and capellini, served with your choice of marinara, pomodoro, or garlic, basil, and olive oil sauce. Other popular specialties include the zesty Cozza Fra Diavlo, with a heap of mussels in a spicy sauce served over linguine. But really, you can’t go wrong.
The lovely Salt Kitchen & Bar at the Wentworth by the Sea resort in New Castle features upscale Mediterranean fare with flair and freshness. Come for the sophisticated, handmade pasta dishes, which reflect the seasons. In the winter, you might start with Rustic Hand Rolled Gnocchi, topped with Tuscan kale, caramelized winter squash, and pumpkin powder, seasoned with sage. Short Rib Ravioli is a hearty meal with a carrot bolognese sauce, topped with crispy onions and parmesan. Other offerings might include Asparagus & Cow’s Milk Cheese Ravioli, served with a creamy duck egg; Rigatoni, with kale, tomatoes, and whipped ricotta; Cavatelli, with wild mushrooms, chicken, spinach, and a rich porcini cream; and Seafood Tagliolini, with generous portions of crabmeat, lobster, and scallops, dusted with truffles. Each offers a depth of flavor and finesse, far from Nonna’s Old World red sauce and noodles (though we love that, too!)
The long-anticipated Tuscan Kitchen opened in Portsmouth to much fanfare, and has since garnered a long list of devoted diners craving traditional Italian dishes. The space is huge, with an open kitchen, large bar, and spacious dining areas, adjacent to its own Italian-style market. Pots boil, pans sizzle, and the waitstaff bustles, carrying steaming bowls of pasta, heaping plates of food, baskets filled with homemade breads, and pans of wood-fired pizzas to diners. Pastas, made in-house with ultra-fine imported doppio zero flour, are top-notch and, not surprisingly, some of the most popular dishes on the varied menu. The ravioli dishes steal the show, and there are several to choose from, including the decadent Ravioli ai Quattro Formaggi, stuffed with parmesan, burrata, fontina, and fresh ricotta, served in a simple sage brown butter and dressed with shaved truffles. Meat-lovers praise the Tortelli al Brasato, stuffed with tender braised short rib, and the Veal Tortelloni. But on a cold winter’s night, nothing beats their classic Rigatoni alla Bolognese, with a hearty, slow-cooked, soul-satisfying beef, veal, and pork sauce.
“I like to mix it up,” says Suzanne Schepis-Gray, chef-owner of Misto! in Kittery, Maine. At her small, family-run casual bistro and bar, with painted murals of Sicily and Rome, wooden tables and chairs, and chalkboard signs, Schepis-Gray mixes it up, creating dishes inspired by her heritage, experience, and dedication to fresh, healthy ingredients. In the three or so years it’s been open, Misto! has garnered accolades and a loyal following for good reason: the food is fresh and imaginative, crafted with passion. You’ll get a basket of fresh bread to enjoy while you peruse the menu. If you’re lucky, it will include Cioppino Classic Italian, with chunks of haddock, shrimp, and mussels, in a unique tomato-wine broth, served over linguine. The broth, which Schepis-Gray calls “liquid gold,” is brightened with her signature marinara sauce, showcasing her Sicilian roots. “The marinara sauce is one of our staples,” she says, “passed down for generations.” The sauce has South African influences, a bit sweet with touches of cinnamon and nutmeg. You’ll enjoy its full-on flavor in the simple, satisfying bowl of Linguine Marinara or Four Cheese Ravioli Marinara. The linguine and ravioli also come with a choice of creamy basil parmesan sauce, pesto, butter, or extra virgin olive oil and garlic—but go for the marinara. A seasonal special might include a 100 percent vegan, 100 percent super foods Powerhouse Pasta, made with red beets, carrots, and other vegetables, served with a creamy avocado pesto sauce. Perfect proof that outside-the-box healthy foods can be delicious.
Come with a big appetite and as-you-are to popular Dante’s Bistro Bar & Grill (also called Dante’s Pasta & Vino) in Barrington, New Hampshire. This rambling restaurant, with several dining areas and a rollicking lounge, is decked out with memorabilia and artifacts from owner Dante D’Antilio’s travels to Italy, and photos of his Italian family and ancestors in Tuscany. This is a gather your friends and family, roll up your sleeves, hoist a drink, and be merry kind of place, and it won’t bust your budget. The menu is large, featuring a slew of traditional Italian dishes. Share the Antipasto d’Italiano platter, with a selection of cheeses, marinated veggies, and sausages, before digging into steaming bowls of pasta. Start with a choice of spaghetti or penne (or substitute linguine, ravioli, or gnocchi) and then pick your preparation. The Sugo al Pomodoro is a classic house-made marinara sauce; the Bolognese, made with beef, pork, and veal, is rich and satisfying; the Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino, with lots of garlic and crushed red pepper, is zingy and perfect for a cold winter evening. Classic Puttanesco (get recipe), Pesto alla Genovese, and Primavera dishes are also favorites. A variety of seasonal specials are always on the menu.
Dick Varano, owner of Varano’s Italian Restaurant in Wells, Maine, admits that it took a few years for people to discover them. Today, customers queue for a table (no reservations taken) as satisfied departing diners assure them, “It’s worth the wait.” It is. The business model is simple but successful. “We make all the dishes that Americans love, with fresh ingredients, done well,” Varano says. The sauces, all house-made, are killer. The Bolognese has some 27 ingredients; the Marinara is equally deeply layered; the glaze-like Marsala sauce is sweet and slightly smoky; the Piccata is vibrant. Start with the Wild Boar Meatballs, flavorful and textured, served with a nutty arugula slaw, or the Arancini, cream cheese and chive risotto balls drizzled with marinara. Or go straight to the entrée showstoppers. The familiar Chicken Parmesan is their most popular dish, topped with marinara sauce and melted mozzarella cheese. Other favorites include classic pasta dishes, like the ultra-rich Rigatoni Bolognese, topped with tangy pecorino cheese. Seafood Fettuccine (get recipe) is loaded with shrimp, scallops, and lobster in a mild Gorgonzola cream sauce; the Penne All’Amatriciana is a complex blend with smoky bacon, peas, sweet onions, tomatoes, and garlic. You’ll want to pair each dish with a glass of wine. The restaurant has more than 200 bottles—all Italian—on its award-wining wine list.