FEAST-May 2010 (from Maine Home+Design)
By Smith Galtney
Photographs by François Gagné
It’s an unseasonably glorious mid-March afternoon in Ogunquit, one of those premature spring afternoons that makes you want to pull a Ferris Bueller and bask in the sunlight. But Jeff Porter and Gary Pucciarelli—two of the men behind Five-O, one of the area’s few restaurants that stays open year-round—don’t need to call in sick. Both are on mid-winter break, technically, with Five-O’s doors not scheduled to reopen until the end of March. Yet here they are, tucked inside the bistro’s upstairs offices, talking shop and thinking ahead.
“We have to work as hard in the off-season as we do in the summertime,” says Pucciarelli, who triples as Five-O’s vice president, general manager, and house bartender. “Come the third week in June, we’re busy every day, from open to close, through most of September. But in the winter, we have to work just as hard to get the word out and let people know, ‘Yes, we’re still open. Yes, we’re still here.'”
Indeed, Five-O’s envious location—right in Ogunquit’s sweet spot, just off the intersection of Route 1 and Shore Road—makes serving a full house in summer as easy as opening all the windows and hanging up an “Open” sign. By October, though, most of the hotels are closed, the population shrinks to 1,200 residents, and it’s time to pound the pavement again. “Even people in Portland and Portsmouth think everything here’s shut down,” says Porter, Five-O’s president. “But there’s a lot to do, it’s nice!”
To keep things lively during the chilly seasons, Five-O hosts monthly wine dinners with seasonal menus, as well as events that coincide with the numerous yearly celebrations launched by Ogunquit’s Chamber of Commerce: Patriots Day, Cinco de Mayo, Christmas by the Sea, New Year’s Eve, OgunquitFest in October, and two annual Restaurant Weeks. Package deals with nearby hotels and a corporate sponsorship of the Ogunquit Playhouse lure the weekend-getaway set.
Five-O first opened back in 2001, under a different owner, as more of a neighborhood diner. According to Pucciarelli, who started as the house bartender in 2003, “They didn’t really have a chef. Just cooks cooking and putting out the fare—maybe not so many fresh ingredients, more frozen things, less of an emphasis on local agriculture, things like that.”
In 2004, Porter and his partner, Donato Tramuto, stepped in and bought the place. Teaming with Pucciarelli, they transformed Five-O into a finer white-cloth—yet still casual—dining establishment, bringing in a trained chef and serving Mediterranean fare with a farm-to-table New England touch. In 2006, the three men turned the space next door into Café Preggo, a more laid-back summertime trattoria that just may serve the best pizza in Maine.
Perhaps inspired by Café Preggo’s less formal atmosphere, the Five-O team decided their original endeavor was ready for a change. Call it Five-O 2.0.
“We decided we didn’t want to do the white-tablecloth thing anymore,” says Porter. “We wanted it to be more comfortable, more approachable. We painted the walls yellow, so it would feel bright and wouldn’t appear to be stuffy.” Adds Pucciarelli, “A lot of times, people associate white tablecloths with something not in their realm of affordability, and we didn’t want to be a special-occasion restaurant. We wanted people to feel like they could come here a couple of times a week.”
Earlier this year, just before closing up for the mid-winter break, they hired a new chef, Will Foden, who will be serving up sea urchin with lardo, Tuscan chicken-liver crostini, and arancinis with truffle honey, among other dishes. The emphasis is on simple, approachable dishes with Italian and Spanish influences, all driven by fresh native ingredients. “We want the Five-O experience to be all about the food, and about it making the guests feel good,” he says.
All of which goes back to the lifeline that keeps Five-O open during the off-season: the locals. They are the customers who keep coming back, whether for this month’s wine tasting or Sunday jazz brunch or seven-dollar-entree night on Mondays. “Friday nights we fire up the oven at Café Preggo and bring pies over for pizza nights,” says Pucciarelli. “It’s our busiest night of the week because people love our pizza so much.” (FYI: Pucciarelli’s wife, who also works at Five-O, is now pregnant. They’re already receiving gifts. A customer insisted on throwing her a baby shower and wouldn’t take no for an answer, so that’s how good the pizza is!)
Finally, there’s the contribution of Tramuto, who’s known throughout the Ogunquit community simply as “Donato.” Ask his two colleagues to define his role and they seem a bit stumped. A host? A chairman? No, not really. “He’s most like a celebrity,” says Pucciarelli. “Like, if this was a Tony Roma’s, he’d be Tony Roma.”