Ports of Italy

After a 23-year career as a server and maître d’ at BiCE, an upscale Italian restaurant in midtown Manhattan, Sandre Calandri decided it was time for a change. He wanted to spend more time with his family, and was ready to make the transition from maître d’ to business owner. But 2009 was a challenging time to borrow money and find affordable restaurant space in New York and New Jersey. He didn’t stop looking; instead, he expanded his range and discovered Ports of Italy in Boothbay Harbor was for sale. Seeing so many positive factors—the price, the name, the beautiful location, and the seasonality of the business—he purchased the restaurant. Although he is away from his family and works constantly from May through October, he makes enough to spend six months during the off season with his wife and three sons who are now 20, 12, and 10 years old.

Calandri is from Perugia, Italy and he speaks quickly with a thick accent. He’s incredibly animated, always moving. My dining companion and I sit in the covered patio area and watch as he flows from one task to the next, talking with customers, greeting new guests, opening wine, and delivering food. He reads his dining room, remembers repeat customers, and knows when to leave people alone; he truly has a gift.

I take in all the action while sipping on a Mionetto spritz served over ice with an orange slice. This isn’t your grandmother’s white wine spritzer; it’s a reinvented, elegant aperitif with a slightly tart flavor and lively bubbles. We also order the Ports of Italy martini made with cuarenta y tres liqueurs (a vanilla- and citrus-flavored liqueur), raspberry vodka, and a floating layer of chianti. This drink is the creation of Josh Tirado, a waiter who studies business management and hospitality at Husson University in Bangor. Originally from the Bronx, Tirado visited Maine when he was eight years old through the Fresh Air Fund. The visit changed his life, and shortly after, he moved to Boothbay Harbor with his mother and sister. He knew little about the restaurant business when starting at Ports of Italy three seasons ago, and now is one of Calandri’s most valued employees. “He’s a copy of me,” Calandri says with pride. “When I first started I didn’t know anything; I had to look things up on GoogleTranslate so I could pronounce the wines correctly,” Tirado says, then fires off the names of a few Italian wines with ease.

It wasn’t always smooth sailing at Ports of Italy, though. Calandri has had to make a series of staffing changes since opening in 2010, but over the past three seasons he’s secured a loyal and talented staff. Our waiter, Tony Wojtkow, is knowledgeable and professional. His mother is Italian, his father is Polish, and he lives in England with his own family during the off season. He’s the only employee (besides Calandri) who fillets branzino tableside, and his Italian roots and English professionalism make him a perfect match for the restaurant.

In the kitchen, chef Fabrizio Ventricini and sous chef Nick Panarese make the pasta, sauces, and desserts each day. “I like the kitchen to be traditional, nothing fancy, just classic, nice,” Calandri says. And as the meal begins, the combination of simple home-style touches—bread served in a paper bag and approachable menu items like risotto and veal saltimbocca—paired with sophisticated service creates a balance of casual yet upscale dining. I feel comfortable, and special.

Calandri loves to drink wine, especially whites, and happily opens an array of bottles for us throughout the meal. He starts with a lightly acidic ribolla gialla, a beautifully light wine for the seafood salad and rare yellowfin tuna bruschetta. The salad teems with large, fresh pieces of calamari, mussels, shrimp, lobster, and octopus, all tossed in an olive oil and lemon dressing. The bruschetta is just as vibrant, with bursts of garlic, capers, and reduced balsamic.

Like the menu with its wooden cover and photographs, the wine list at Ports of Italy is different from any I’ve experienced. Instead of grouping the wines by region or variety, Calandri arranges them by taste, or, as he says, “what happens in your mouth.” Spumante is sparkling and bubbly; croccante means lively and clean; vivace is rich and velvety; and audace is spicy and fruity. With so many gorgeous wines to select—nearly 20 by the glass and more than 45 by the bottle—it would be a shame to stick to pinot grigio.

It’s during the second course that I completely give myself over to the service and pace of the meal. Wojtkow, our ever-present and professional server, lifts a portion of eggplant rotini from the serving platter with a fork and spoon and gently places it in front of me. All it takes is one bite of the thinly sliced eggplant filled with ricotta cheese and I’m reminded of my mother, Carmela Mildred Ragonese, who passed away in 2010. The very ends of the eggplant, the little pieces that aren’t covered with tomato sauce, fresh basil, and mozzarella cheese, are firm and just a bit crunchy. This is a dish she’d make; it’s simple and from the heart. I wish I could share this meal with my mother. She would love Calandri and his restaurant.

I ask Calandri about his mother and if her cooking inspired his career in hospitality. He says her food is simple, delicious, and fueled by a passion for cooking with beautiful ingredients. “In Italy, we all know how to cook,” he says. “We don’t do fancy things; it’s always simple.” For the rest of the meal, I keep my mother in mind and am thankful that Calandri’s mother instilled in her son the importance of simple, beautiful ingredients.

When the pasta arrives, it’s time for more luscious, full-bodied white wines. The Malvirà roero arneis, a rich wine known for its floral tones and citrus flavor, pairs well with homemade lobster, veal, and spinach ricotta ravioli. The veal is tonight’s special, and, in contrast to the light spinach and ricotta ravioli, is rich and creamy. I want more of the delicate lobster ravioli covered with tomato cream and lobster broth, but we move on to Ventricini’s homemade gnocchi. Calandri opens the Claude Riffault sancerre, a wine with such depth and minerality it cuts through the creaminess of the gnocchi bathed in a four-cheese sauce and brightens the pesto gnocchi.

Time doesn’t matter as we sit on the patio at Ports of Italy; our meal continues and customers around us come and go. At one point during the four-hour meal the entire room sings happy birthday to a table and we all clap as if we’re family. Throughout the night, I watch Calandri offer fresh-ground pepper to customers from an electronic pepper grinder. As it grinds, a light from the bottom of the grinder illuminates the dish, showing how much pepper is used. The guests love it, and Calandri’s face shines with delight.

When we’re ready for more food, Calandri brings out a whole roasted branzino that Wojtkow artfully debones tableside. He makes the task look effortless as he removes the head and tail, fillets the meat, and presents the roasted fish in minutes. It’s cooked in rosemary, garlic, olive oil, white wine, and lemon and has a firm, buttery texture. We’re also served another well-known Ports of Italy specialty, the suckling pig porchetta with herb-roasted potatoes and broccoli. The porchetta is made by layering pork loin on top of pork belly that’s seasoned with garlic, rosemary, thyme, and sage. The meat is rolled, tied, and roasted until it’s juicy and reaches a deep mahogany color. Each night the porchetta is proudly displayed in the main dining area surrounded by an assortment of marinated salads and vegetables. I admire the care it takes to make this dish and savor its richness.

Thankfully dessert is a small portion of three specialties: panna cotta, tiramisu, and cannoli. Each dessert is made in-house, but the cannoli is my favorite. The outside crust is flaky and dusted with pistachios and the sweetened ricotta filling is dotted with tiny chocolate chips and candied orange pieces. This is exactly how I want to end my dining experience at Ports of Italy—enjoying a cannoli and sipping on a glass of Maculan Dindarello Moscato, a dessert wine with subtle hints of orange and honey.

Calandri enhances the dining experience at Ports of Italy with his endearing accent, utmost professionalism, and vivacious energy. When he says, “It’s a beautiful life, a good life. I love the restaurant business,” I know he means it. From May through October Calandri can be found doing what he does so well—catering to his guests and sharing authentic Italian cuisine with those who visit the beautiful town of Boothbay Harbor.

47 Commercial St. | Boothbay Harbor | 207.633.1011 | portsofitaly.com

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