Following my visit to Caiola’s, co-owner Lisa Vaccaro told me, “it was nice to actually sit down and relax in my own restaurant, I haven’t done that in quite a long time.” She added it was nice to remember ”why we work as hard as we do, and why it is really worth it.”
It’s interesting how one can be so close to their own business, yet so caught up in providing for patrons, they forget to stop and enjoy the fruits for themselves once in a while. Vaccaro, who owns the West End staple with her partner, chef Abby Harmon, has a good deal of history in the Portland restaurant world, tracing back to her days bartending at the now legendary dance club, Zootz Nightclub. When they first met, Harmon was the head chef for well-known restaurateur Dana Street at Street and Co., where she had been since 1990. Over the years, Vaccaro and Harmon hosted elaborate dinner parties until finally, in 2005, Vaccaro convinced Harmon to branch out and open a restaurant of their own.
After an emotional parting of ways from Street and Co., Harmon set out to create a menu that was entirely different and drew heavily on both the cuisines of Sicily and Provencal France. It was simple at first, with just five entrees and two saladsin an effort to maintain focus and make sure each dish was standout. The response from the neighborhood was immediate. In 2009, they purchased and renovated the building on Pine Street, adding a beautiful outdoor patio to accommodate steadily increasing business.
Much of Caiola’s success can be attributed to Harmon, who approaches cooking with an almost fanatical devotion. She is constantly applying new techniques from a myriad of different cultures. She goes to extraordinary lengths to thoroughly understand every element of a dish and immerses herself not only in preparation but also the history of a recipe to a point where I am reminded of well-known American cookbook author Paula Wolfert. This is evident in Harmon’s scallop and lobster rossejat with toasted vermicelli and basil crema, a classic that takes roots in Catalonia and pays homage to Rome. The noodles (fideos) are toasted and then slowly simmered in stock until they are dense and flavorful and the earthy tones take on a pleasant contrast with the creamy sweet basil. Another Catalan-inspired dish is black rice, which gets its color from squid ink and is served with garlicky shrimp and calamari alongside piquillo peppers and an aromatic saffron aioli. Big, bold flavors abound yet work in harmony.
”We don’t really use recipes here,” says Vaccaro, ”with the exception of a few standbys, which people would be up in arms if we ever took off. Most dishes will come and go freely based on what Abby wants to cook.”
These standbys include the Caesar salad with fried oysters, which has been on the menu since day one, and an utterly delicious rendition of chicken marsala over rigatoni with shallots, mushrooms, and red sauce. Other times Harmon will take inspiration from the American South, as is the case with near-perfect buttermilk fried chicken wings, served with johnnycakes and a sweet and spicy maple sambal, an interesting supplement for the usual basic honey that may accompany a dish like this. Even definitive comfort food like fish-and-chips gets an update, with a smoky, brandade-like haddock aioli.
To pair with lighter fare, such as razor clam ceviche, and more decadent selections like lobster bread pudding with Madeira cream sauce, I opt for the 2011 Domaine Spiropoulos Mantinia. This wine is stylistically archetypal Moschofilero, with a bright citrus characteristic and a good amount of salinity, allowing it to seamlessly integrate with the aforementioned dishes. The by-the-glass list is composed of largely workhorses such as this, which easily lend themselves to everyday drinking.
Desserts range from a simple butterscotch pot de crème to a delicately layered crepe cake with mascarpone and Bing cherries. Even the flavors of ice cream, such as strawberry rose geranium and key lime graham, echo the bold yet complementary flavors found throughout the savory menu.
Caiola’s continues to evolve on a daily basis, inspiring first timers, small contingent of regulars who come as often as three times a week, and the owners themselves. The experience is infinitely versatile, from a full-on menu sampling to a simple bowl of pasta on a weeknight, not to mention to the menu is constantly changing on Harmon’s whim. Every dish tells a story, but you’ll have to go hear them for yourself.
58 Pine Street | Portland | 207.772.1110 | caiolas.com