Trattoria Athena, Brunswick
Posted on October 13, 2011
by Joe Ricchio
Due to the specifications of my body, it is not hard for me to be directly in the way of traffic in Trattoria Athena’s small, bustling dining room. It’s not that I mind waiting a few extra minutes while our table is made ready, but that I feel bad for anyone having their view of the kitchen or other diners eclipsed by my Rubenesque physique.
During the wait for a table, I take time to examine specials on the large chalkboard dominating one side of the restaurant. Not wanting to harm anyone by flailing my arms about in a fit of joy, I conceal my excitement when I see tripe on the board. Instead, I turn to face the two large metalwork maps of both Greece and Italy on a different wall, representing countries that, despite conflict in the past, live in perfect harmony on the menu here.
Servers navigate around me with arms full of plates as my three dining companions and I are seated in the window, close to the entrance. My designated seat is the perfect spot from which to observe the mounting frustration of a couple who made reservations but find themselves entirely at the mercy of a table that simply refuses to finish their coffee in under an hour. When the lingerers finally get up to leave, they add to insult to injury by suggesting that the patient couple “enjoy their dinner!”
Carefully following this interaction causes me to shirk my duty of picking out wine from the exclusively Greek and Italian list. On this particular evening, I am less concerned with pairing as I am with choosing a style that will go the distance through the meal. Based on this criteria, I choose the Argyros Atlantis Red, a blend of mandilaria and mavrotragano from the Greek island of Santorini. Though it has a beautiful fruit profile, it remains delicate, with just enough tannic structure to hold up to some of the richer, fatty foods on the menu. It is also interesting to note that only 5 percent of the wine produced in Santorini is red—when you are lucky enough to encounter it, order it.
After placing our order, we are presented with two olive oils that act as a conduit for the warm, crusty bread. The first is from Laconia, and is quite peppery tasting with a brilliant green hue. The second, a more fruity and intense offering, is from Florence. While enjoying the differences between the two, it occurs to me that the current trend in restaurants is to offer farm butter rather than make use of the variety of styles available in olive oils. This is just an observation, and is in no way meant to be an attack on butter.
Our decision to order one arancini apiece is rewarded when four fried orbs of black trumpet mushroom risotto arrive, each with a gooey mozzarella center and garnished with fried sage. Apple Crisp also makes its way to the table, a texturally pleasing salad of fresh greens, pungent bleu cheese, sweet walnuts, and refreshing apple slices.
Dolmathes, grape leaves stuffed with delicately spiced meat, rice, and herbs, is a Greek restaurant staple. Trattoria Athena’s version is noticeably heartier than most. It has a liberal amount of filling, and is served alongside a tangy yogurt sauce.
After conquering the first bottle of Atlantis Red, we can think of no reason to deviate for bottle number two. I know that a third bottle is likely in store for us, but refrain from ordering it to conserve precious table space for our barrage of appetizers. The next dish to make an appearance is the Carpaccio di Manzo, with paper-thin slices of grass-fed beef, figs, parmesan, and arugula. The universal complaint at the table about this dish is that the superior quality of the beef should be the primary element, and that its flavor is largely overpowered by the other elements on the plate.
As I mentioned earlier, I have an unhealthy adoration for tripe, and the Trippa all Fiorentina—tender tripe braised in tomato, white wine, and garlic—is exactly what I hoped for. After being presented, it is showered tableside with parmesan cheese, completing what I like to refer to as the “circle of life.” This dish is so good that I feel obligated to remind one of my fellow diners, a self-proclaimed “tripe virgin,” that it doesn’t always necessarily get this good.
Though I could go into great detail about the “Chicken McNugget story” told to us by my dining companion shortly before we arrived, I will spare you and just let it be known that it prompted us to order the chicken tenders from the specials chalkboard. These, unlike “C-Nugs,” are actually a play on words, substituting locally foraged Chicken of the Woods mushrooms for the “tenders,” and served with a marinara dipping sauce. As we hungrily tear into them, no one expresses any disappointment whatsoever about the absence of actual chicken.
Our final appetizer is Carciofi Fritti, delicious, airy, batter-fried artichoke hearts and stems. When dipped in the zippy lemon-garlic aioli served alongside, it becomes one of the world’s greatest bar snacks.
After the appetizers are cleared I am finally comfortable sacrificing table space for another bottle of wine. After a small break, our entrees begin to appear, mine being yet another Greek restaurant staple, Moussaka. Though some may consider this to be a “safe” or “boring” choice, I admit that I am powerless to resist a decadent sauce of ground beef with tomatoes and sweet spices, layered between slices of grilled eggplant and topped with bechamel. It is, of course, every bit as good as it sounds—Sunday comfort food at its best.
Another standout is the Saltimbocca all Romana, an Italian comfort food classic made up of thinly pounded pork medallions, pan-fried, topped with salty prosciutto, foraged mushrooms, and a sweet wine and butter sauce. The Pappardelle al Sugo d’Anatra, wide sheets of pasta smothered in rabbit ragu, has potential to be superlative but suffers from excessive amounts of rosemary, an herb that is not easily ignored.
One of the benefits of dining with three other people is that even though I may have confessed to being “painfully full” halfway through my entree, there will always be someone in the group who insists on ordering dessert. This, of course, prompts everyone else to order something as well. I decide to take the “liquid” route, ordering a glass of vin santo, a sweet Italian dessert wine arrives accompanied by two pizzelle cookies, dusted in powdered sugar. My fellow diners opt for the outrageously sweet baklava, a traditional Greek confection with phyllo-dough, honey, and spices.
The flavor profiles of Greek and Italian food compliment each other quite well, a point that Trattoria Athena illustrates beautifully. This concept allows for a myriad of dining experiences, though for me one thing is consistent: I will always order the tripe.
25 Mill St. | Brunswick | 207.721.0700 | trattoriaathena.com