Enio’s Italian Eatery

As I pull up to park on the street in front of Enio’s Italian Eatery on a dark, rainy night, I feel an unmistakable nostalgia of sorts, the almost diner-like storefront casting a soft, warm glow and promising the kind of Italian food that I so fondly remember eating as a child.

Inside, authentic Italian is exactly what I am treated to, and as chef Laura Butler, who co-owns Enio’s with her husband Bob, tells me at the end of my meal, “I like to feed my guests like a grandmother.”

The dim lights, the sparse décor, the unmistakable smell of olive oil, slowly cooked meats, and garlic in the air remind me of either eating at my Mimi’s house or being taken out to special dinners with her and my grandfather (although in that case there would definitely be the mingling of cigarette smoke that was all part of the Italian-American restaurant experience in the past).

Thus I am completely smitten with Enio’s even before I have the pleasure of meeting Bob, who oversees the front of the house as Laura mans the stove. The interior is softly lit, dominated by weathered, beautifully maintained wooden fixtures, and most of the seating is either bar or counter. I am shown to a small nook in the corner, where Bob offers something to nibble on while I examine the menu and wine list, which he maintains himself. For this purpose there are a choice of three “jars,” or different spreads that are served with soft, fresh baked Italian bread grilled until crisp. I start with the roasted eggplant spread, a caponata of sorts, which with the addition of caramelized onion, golden raisins, garlic, and herbed goat cheese, has a wonderful range of textures and flavors to complement the insanely moreish rafts of bread, lubricated ever so slightly with a touch of olive oil.

This is where Laura’s cooking truly shines, when combining the techniques and ingredients of regions like Sicily and Abruzzo and integrating them with both well-loved Italian-American nuances while happily utilizing whatever she can get her hands on as long as it makes the food taste better. One would be hard-pressed to peg the menu as any one particular style, but rather it exists to satisfy a range of moods that can vary on each visit.

The Butlers are not new to the profession, they ran their first restaurant, Rachel’s, in two locations for over 15 years in Portland. After briefly leaving for Florida to rest and rejuvenate, they returned to start again, this time in South Portland.

“Rachel was my mother’s name,” Bob explains to me, “Though after all that time I knew it was Laura’s turn so we named our new restaurant Enio’s, after her father.”

One of the classic dishes that has been a staple in all of their endeavors is whole squid, charred from the grill with the skin left on—a practice that I firmly believe very much enhances the flavor. It rests in a pool of balsamic vinegar, rich peppery olive oil, and sweet, mellow roasted garlic, and is accompanied by soft croutons made from the aforementioned bread. As you progress through the dish, the croutons absorb more of the condiments, making them simply irresistible, especially alongside the tender, smoky squid.

Bob’s wine selection, which is entirely and appropriately Old World, contains a wealth of bottles that would complement the squid. For example, the 2012 Pichot Vouvray from the Loire valley, is a versatile Chenin blanc with goodly amounts of ripe fruit balanced out by the grape’s characteristic acidity. He also displays a particular affinity for Sangiovese, and with good reason as who wouldn’t want a bottle of 2012 Castellare Chianti Classico alongside their decadent ricotta gnocchi with salty guanciale and tomato cream sauce?

My entrée of fresh halibut, roasted and glazed with port wine reduction, is served atop little twists of handmade trofie pasta in pumpkin purée, with a pleasantly earthy and aromatic combination of caramelized shitake mushroom and rosemary, and brightened with a squeeze of lemon. I strongly dislike the term autumnal in regards to food, so instead I will refer to it as not unlike the flavors that one may encounter around Thanksgiving. There.

The portions at Enio’s are refreshingly ample, so I am far from hungry at this point, yet it would seem wildly inadvisable to skip a slice of Laura’s mixed berry pie with a light, buttery pastry shell, and fresh whipped cream. It is finished with a scoop of sweet, refreshing handmade strawberry ice cream, yet another childhood pleasure that apparently I have been denying myself for far too long. A single shot of espresso puts the whole affair to bed.

Bob and Laura have, once again, created the kind of restaurant that can ultimately define a neighborhood, and almost every patron seems to share a familiarity with them at the very least. Enio’s is a much-needed reminder that dining out does not always need to be a production, and that maybe your grandma had it completely right all along.

347 Cottage Road | South Portland | (207) 799-0207 | enioseatery.com

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