What are you in the mood for? A quiet spot, where the atmosphere is relaxed and dinner is served at a more measured pace? Or something a little more boisterous, casual, and lively? Take your pick. You can find both kinds of experiences at Enoteca Athena. To the left of the entrance is the trattoria, modeled after a traditional Italian eatery, with wooden wine racks, ceramics, and a center serving table graced with an enormous copper fish cooker. There’s a rustic feel to the room, with country-style wooden tables and lighting. “This room tries to rekindle what we had at Trattoria Athena,” owner Tim O’Brien tells me, referring to the restaurant he used to own around the corner. Last winter, O’Brien closed that place, and revamped Enoteca Athena on Maine Street, keeping the best elements of both.
Running two restaurants had proved too stressful for O’Brien, who is also the head chef. “I hate not seeing every plate that goes out,” he says,” and I couldn’t do that. It was time to simplify.” The area to the right of the entrance, what he calls ‘Tec (short for Enoteca) has the look and feel of a taverna, with lights strung across the ceiling and an open kitchen. An inviting wooden bar stretches almost the full length of one wall.
Behind the bar you’ll find Nikaline Iacono, the bar manager who has worked with O’Brien for more than ten years. She’s extremely knowledgeable about Italian and Greek wines, and can point you in a direction that suits your taste. The wine list is organized by estate and family, then region, with both bottle and by-the-glass options from each. Many of the wines are from small production estates, so the list changes often. Iacono has also embraced the unofficial cocktail of Italy by creating a Negroni bar. The classic cocktail is a mixture of gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari, a bitter Italian aperitivo. But you can create a variation by choosing from a list of gins, amaros (bitter liqueurs), and vermouths, or choose the Negroni della Casa. Currently, the special combines plum gin, Cynar, and house-made sweet vermouth. The mildly bitter flavor is meant to whet the appetite and prepare the palate for dinner. Iacono has also put together a house cocktail list that makes great use of Italian and Greek flavors and ingredients, such as spiced Tentura rum.
While sipping my Negroni, O’Brien and I sit at the bar and talk. I have to ask: “What does a guy named Tim O’Brien know about Italian food?” He’s heard that question before. “My nonna, Viola Marini, is from Campania in southern Italy and my grandfather is from Lazio, near Abruzzo,” he explains. When he opened his first restaurant, Trattoria Athena, he was just looking for a place to sell his handmade pasta. The retail store soon became a restaurant with a small menu specializing in his fresh pasta and seasonal ingredients. When it closed, O’Brien brought that concept here to Enoteca Athena, as a complement to the set menu. Now a long list of daily specials includes the best of local farmers’ markets and quality imported ingredients. Fresh water buffalo milk mozzarella, available on a limited basis, is a favorite of O’Brien’s and he treats it reverently. “It’s best to let it speak for itself,” he says. “It should be served at room temperature with just a little olive oil, sea salt, and tomato.” Right now, that mozzarella is presented beautifully and simply, with heirloom tomatoes on a block of pink sea salt with arugula pesto. The ingredients absorb a little saltiness from the slab, seasoning them perfectly. In the winter, roasted tomatoes will replace fresh.
Carciofini fritti, or Roman-style fried artichokes, is a popular appetizer. The hot, crunchy vegetables are wonderfully light, and have a dusting of Parmesan, mint, and parsley. “It’s an egg white tempura batter,” says O’Brien. “It’s been a bestseller at both places.” Arancini is another favorite, a crispy ball of risotto that, when cut open, oozes mozzarella. The preparation varies and today’s has savory chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms and Gorgonzola. From tonight’s specials comes a bowl of hand-cut pasta called corzetti. It’s made by cutting fresh pasta sheets into circles with an embossed wooden stamp. The pasta is topped with a sweet and sour caponata of eggplant, mushrooms, and tomatoes. More of that creamy buffalo mozzarella is added, along with a few slices of speck.
As we finish tasting these dishes and more, O’Brien can’t resist bringing out one more thing. Slices of crostini have been spread with burro del chianti, a traditional whipped lardo with rosemary, red wine vinegar, and garlic. “It’s really, really delicious,” he says. We completely agree.
Enoteca Athena | 97 Maine St. | Brunswick | 207.721.0100 | enotecaathena.com