468 Fore Street
Paciarino is the Old Port's new darling. Since its beginnings in early January, Paciarino has quickly amassed loyal foodie fans. Part of Paciarino's appeal lies in its ownership: the husband-and-wife proprietors Fabiana Da Savino and Enrico Barbiero moved to Maine from Milano, Italy in August of 2008. The couple's experience as restaurant owners in Italy lends Paciarino an authenticity that few Portland Italian restaurants can boast.
Upon entering Paciarino, my party immediately noticed how bright the space was. The walls were painted sunny yellow and spring green, and the lighting was medium to bright. This was a refreshing change, for many of Portland's finer eateries opt for low lighting. One of my dining companions also pointed out that the “chandeliers” in the room were actually small colanders hanging upside-down. Cute. There was a clean, open kitchen on our left, and to the far left, glass-front refrigerators filled with what I can only assume are some of Paciarino's take-home purchases. You see, Paciarino isn't just an eat-in place; you can purchase pasta and sauces there and cook for yourself at home. It's also a place where you can take cooking classes. These multiple uses made the space feel slightly informal but sweet and welcoming nonetheless.
After being seated, we were greeted by our very warm and friendly waitress. She seemed enthusiastic to answer our questions. The waitress's willingness to help us was essential, because as it turned out, the menu was written in Italian. I write “was” because our waitress is currently helping the owners write the menu in English. We needed her to translate virtually every item for us, and she was very patient with us as we asked her about everything. I will admit that there is something exotic about ordering from a menu that is written in another tongue, but from the standpoint of a vegetarian food critic, it put me in a position where I had to ask a lot of questions. Apparently everyone asks a lot of questions at Paciarino, for our waitress was exceptionally obliging.
The wine menu was small but sufficient. Of the red wines listed, two were available by the glass. I ordered a glass of the La Garia Nero d'Avola ($6). Much to my pleasure, the menu contained plenty of meatless options—and by options, I don't mean that I chose the one vegetarian appetizer and the one vegetarian entree available—I mean, I actually had to make a decision. Fellow vegetarians know how disappointing it can be when a menu chooses your meal for you. For our appetizers, my party decided to split the Torta Salata della Casa ($6.75), which the waitress explained to us was not actually a salad but more of a dinner torte. For my main dish, I ordered the Ravioli Goat Cheese al Pomodoro ($14.75). My friend Elise ordered the Maccheroni al Ragu di Tonno ($13.75), which is actually Da Savino and Barbiero's take on macaroni and cheese, and Elise's friend Joni ordered the Ravioli Milano al Pomodoro ($14.75). We sipped wine and enjoyed dipping crusty bread in olive oil as we waited for our orders to arrive.
The Torta Salata della Casa arrived as two torte-sized slices, which in layperson's terms means that they looked like two pieces of pie. Each torta was of a different flavor but framed with a traditional white flour crust. The first torta was filled with a tangy ricotta mixture. The second was comprised of a spinach filling that had a subtle taste of nutmeg. We enjoyed this dish—which was served at room temperature—and probably would have liked just one more torta.
Once we finished our appetizers, the waitress promptly brought us our main dishes. I was eager to taste the pasta that so many people had raved about. The pomodoro sauce was fresh and zesty, but the ravioli themselves were a bit ho-hum. They seemed overcooked; I prefer a more al dente presentation. Furthermore, the filling seemed bland and not at all what one would expect from a goat cheese ravioli. At this point, my dining companions and I decided to swap a few bites. Elise's Maccheroni al Ragu di Tonno proved the best choice of our three dishes; this entree had been prepared with a taleggio cream sauce, infusing the rigatoni with a delicious and creamy bite. Tossed with the rigatoni were several kalamata olives, and a generous application of pepper cut the richness of the taleggio. Joni's dish, however, genuinely surprised me. After sampling her ravioli, I realized that our entrees had been switched; Joni had been eating the Goat Cheese al Pomodoro, and I had been eating the Ravioli Milano al Pomodoro. The switch explained my disappointment. Joni graciously offered to swap plates with me, but I couldn't do it. Hers was better than mine, and taking it away would just be mean (we were just introduced that evening). I will admit that the goat cheese ravioli was tastier than the more traditional Milano ravioli, but Joni's entree also seemed a trifle overcooked.
Though our dinner servings were generous, we ordered dessert like good little food critics. The dessert menu contained many enticing choices, including tiramisu. We settled on the Boccondivino ($7.25) because its named sounded exotic. We also picked the Boccondivino because it sounded easy to share. This dessert turned out to to be the star of our meal. The Boccondivino arrived as five tiny cookies; each one was about the size and shape of a cherry tomato (do not fear: they tasted nothing like cherry tomatoes). Each Boccondivino consisted of two tiny chocolate cookies with rich, nutmeg-infused whipped cream sandwiched between them. We could have eaten at least four more apiece. They were small but outstanding.
I will try Paciarino again. The space was inviting and the service was beyond compare. I do confess that I prefer other Italian restaurants in Portland—there are so many marvelous ones!--but I like Paciarino's warmth, and I suspect that there are other dishes I should try. Let's keep Paciarino in business: we need to continue attracting the likes of De Savino and Barbiero to our hungry little peninsula.