Vignola: Rooted in Region
In 2002, after I spent five tumultuous years working in high-profile Chicago restaurants, I found myself back in Portland seeking employment. The very first place I walked into was Cinque Terre, and I landed a gig waiting tables. I’ll never forget the first time I tasted the food: it was simple, quintessential Italian, yet created with high quality ingredients like Sommariva Olive Oil and Parmesan from red cows. When in season, fresh white truffles from the restaurants farm in Greene, Maine were shaved onto everything. This was the food that I wanted to eat and serve, not to mention it was all backed by an Italian wine list that put others I had encountered to shame.
Since then Cinque Terre, formerly a physically connected yet separate entity, has been absorbed under the same banner as its sister restaurant, Vignola. Nevertheless, the emphasis on procuring the very best ingredients to make simple, delicious food has remained. While this practice has been adopted by many great Portland restaurants as the food scene continues to grow, what separates Vignola and chef Lee Skawinski from the pack is the intimate connection to the food source.
This fall will mark Skawinski’s twentieth journey to Italy to visit Vignolas purveyors. On each visit, he is accompanied by a small contingent of his cooks and servers. Skawinski started the trip to show his staff a good time, but also so they could be armed with knowledge of the region and could maintain relationships with the family-run operations they work with year round. Maintaining a strong connection to regional origins is a very important element of Italian cookery.
When you dine at Vignola, the heavily curated menu is evident. Even the bread comes with a choice of three different olive oils: Trevi in Umbria has notes of honey, truffle, and green apple, whereas Ravida from Sicily is grassier with hints of almond, and Castello di Ama of Tuscany is far more opulent with mellow, slightly bitter, peppery characteristics. Thats a lot of variation and quite a bit of complexity for a course that in some restaurants is nothing more than an afterthought.
Another consistent travel destination is Emilia-Romagna, where La Villa Parmigiano Reggiano is made on an estate that raises a special breed of brown alpine cow, all born right on location. This particular cow is prized for the high concentrations of casein in its milk (a very important protein in cheesemaking). The wheels are aged for 12 to 36 months before release. The deep and nutty flavor with a pleasant, slightly crystalized texture works brilliantly on the basil, Parmesan, and ricotta ravioli, which is topped with fresh spring peas and crispy specks.
The wine list also tells a story, especially in regards to Chianti producer Podere Ciona, a winery that Skawinski has visited so many times, he says, “it is basically like my second home in the Tuscan countryside.” But it goes both ways: the winemaker has also traveled to Vignola to host dinners. The wines embody the leathery, earthy characteristics that great Chiantis should have and are quite agreeable with Skawinski’s housemade smoked duck sausage that is served with creamy white beans.
Skawinskis arsenal of Italian ingredients is complemented perfectly by produce from the restaurant’s farm, Grandview, in Greene. Each year, he works to develop a plan for the growing season, which crops to be dealt with and when. Later, kitchen staff and a few front-of-the-house crew help with whatever work needs to be done on the farm.
“It’s peaceful up there,” Skawinski says, ”And it makes for a pretty fun day when we bring lunch and discuss food and menu ideas for the coming weeks.” Produce from the farm finds its way into simple dishes that let the ingredients do the talking, like grilled veal with cippolini onion agrodolce alongside roasted carrots and asparagus.
When I inquire whether or not the menu at Vignola has any specific regional influence, Skawinski explains, ”It’s always evolving. I like having the parameters of Italian cuisine in general as it allows me to focus on the classic flavors as a base for more interesting choices on the menu.” Nevertheless, the Maine influence is undeniable, as almost all of the produce comes from what’s available locally.
Knowing that this much thought goes into the menu and the elements of the menu adds a whole new perspective to dining at Vignola, which has become a Portland institution. I will say, in regards to my prior tenure at Cinque Terre, I was happy there weren’t any farm shifts for employees back then because I probably wouldn’t have made it.
10 Dana Street | Portland | 207.772.1330 | vignolamaine.com