Monte’s Fine Foods continues the Quattrucci family’s Portland legacy
A chat with Steve Quattrucci is a stroll down the memory lane of Portland’s food and restaurant history. His grandparents owned Balboa Cafe, a bustling spot on India Street in the 1930s and 1940s, and his father, Ray, opened Quattrucci’s Hilltop Superette on Munjoy Hill in the 1970s. The original owner of perennial favorite Back Bay Grill, Quattrucci recalls long-gone restaurants that also helped spark the city’s blazing restaurant scene: Cafe Always, Brattle Street, and Alberta’s among them. At Monte’s Fine Foods on Portland’s Washington Avenue, he has returned to his roots, offering a range of specialty food items, in addition to first-rate pizza, sandwiches, and baked goods overseen by Pamela Fitzpatrick, former owner of Little Bigs in South Portland.
Did you always want to follow your dad into the food business?
Not initially. I went to Boston College thinking I would be a priest, which is surprising to a lot of people, but after a year of being a theology major that came to an end. I started working summers at restaurants in Boston. And then, when I left school, I got a job with the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company in 1983 as the maître d’ of their cafe on Newbury Street. In 1987 I came back to Portland. My father had sold the store, and he and my brother had a real estate company; they were flipping houses at the time. It wasn’t for me, and I started looking for a business; I wanted to do a restaurant. I opened Back Bay Grill in 1988 and had it for three years. In 1996 I went back there for a year as the chef before I opened West End Grocery on Spring Street [where Bao Bao Dumpling House is now].
When I came back to Portland in ’87, Alice Waters had been cooking and writing at Chez Panisse out in Berkeley for 10 or 15 years, but the farm-to-table movement had not yet caught on here. There were fancy white tablecloth restaurants in the Old Port, like the Gaslight, but as far as I can remember, Back Bay Grill, Cafe Always, and Brattle Street were the first to buy directly from farmers and have farm names on our menus. It is my understanding that Back Bay Grill was the first restaurant to be reviewed by outside press: the Boston Globe did a review in 1989, and then the New York Times recommended us in an article about Portland.
What’s the history of this building?
This was built in 1960 as an Esso gas station. Later in the ’60s Jack Angelone bought three gas stations in Greater Portland and converted them all into pizzerias: this location, South Portland, and the one in Westbrook that’s still open. The pizzeria operated here for 50 years until July of 2018, when we bought the building. But because Angelone’s opened in the 1960s, all of the infrastructure underground here had not been removed, so it really complicated our purchasing the property. We had to dig up the whole lot; there was contaminated soil, which all had to be removed and disposed of properly. It was a very long, expensive process.
Was having an Italian market your original idea for the business?
In 2015 I was doing wholesale for Micucci Grocery, selling to the fine-dining restaurants in town. We were going to spin that off into a separate business, but the Micucci’s owners decided not to. So, I was going to do a specialty food wholesale business on my own, a “chef ’s warehouse” kind of thing. We looked at several places and found this location. I grew up eating pizza here. The store is named after my grandfather, Ernest Monte, who brought me here as a kid and was good buddies with Jack Angelone. It sparked my imagination, and we ended up with a much more retail-focused store, and much more food service that we originally thought we would have.
Let’s talk about your signature item, pizza.
We specialize in Roman-style pizza, which you can order by the piece at our pronto station, where we don’t have a menu, or you can order a made-to-order pie. We use a very simple tomato sauce with Italian tomatoes that I call Nana Q’s sauce.I’ve been lucky enough to spend a lot of time in Rome, and in the morning, I love something quick and easy. I’ll go to the corner bakery and get a slice; they sell the pizza in these long sheets, which they cut with shears. I knew I wanted to do that here. But I knew on a Friday or Saturday night Monte ’s might do a hundred take-out pizzas an hour, and producing the long style in volume would be problematic. So, that birthed the idea of doing a separate style, called pinsa, for our made-to-order pies. Pinsa is made with a multigrain dough; it’s the successor of the flatbread that was served in ancient Rome. About 20 or 30 years ago, one of Italy’s flour millers decided to resurrect the pinsa with a blend of wheat, rice, and soy flours. I spent a couple of days there learning to cook with their dough. Our made-to-order pies are pinsa, but not pinsa Romana, which is the trademark of that flour mill. I knew right away that soy is an allergen for some people, and I didn’t want to do soy. So, I developed my own flour blend and my own recipe for the pinsa, which replaced the soy with whole-grain Maine Grains spelt. That’s an ancient grain, and it was one that was very common in Rome 2,000 years ago, so it seemed like perfect sense.
Do you have unusual toppings, or is the difference in your pizza just the crust?
We have lots of different toppings, including a number of vegan options: crispy tempeh, vegan cheeses. We make our own vegan pepperoni in house from Heiwa Tofu [in Rockport]. We have a pie with pepperoncini, sopressata, and hot honey that was popularized at a place in Brooklyn, New York. We also do a great pie with smoked duck, provolone, fontina, and braised red cabbage. I had one delivered at home the other night—I do that to check quality and see how they travel—and I was like, “ Wow, this is really good.”