Ports of Italy

Before my visit to Ports of Italy, I had met chef and co-owner Germán Lucarelli at several events. I tasted his excellent focaccia at the Kennebunkport Festival. I savored his mushroom and truffle risotto at Harvest on the Harbor’s Chef Showcase. Every time we cross paths he says to me, “When are you going to come for dinner?” I finally set a date for a visit last week.

It’s a quiet afternoon in this lovely town, with the busy summer giving way to a gorgeous fall and locals going about their business. You can’t miss Ports of Italy. The restaurant sits right in the center of town, by the Lanigan Bridge. There’s valet parking in front, and you might spot one of Lucarelli’s motorcycles in the lot. He owns five of them and swears that the best riding he’s ever done is here in Maine.

The chef came to Maine almost two years ago, another step in a career that’s taken him around the world. A native of Argentina, Lucarelli learned to cook from his Italian grandmother, Maria Elena. They shopped the markets together, the Italian way, going stall to stall to find the freshest produce and meats. He baked cakes to give to the neighbors, just for fun, and began to cook for family and friends when he was just 16 years old. Since then, his career has taken him through some highly prestigious kitchens in San Sebastián, Istanbul, Paris, Argentina, and New York. Lucarelli’s friend and former partner, Sante Calandri, convinced him it was finally time to have his own restaurant. “We drove around Maine and found this place,” he tells me. The former Bartley’s Dockside Restaurant was torn down and rebuilt to suit their style and needs. “I chose everything in here,” he says. There’s a large, rustic dining room painted in typical Tuscan hues of ochre, red, and green, with leather banquettes lining the walls. Outside is a brick patio, strung with lights overlooking the Kennebunk River. Last winter Lucarelli added a wood-fired pizza oven near the bar.

“Everyone wants pizza, pizza, pizza,” he says. “In the summer, we get a lot of families with kids, and they all want pizza.” It’s hard to argue with that when the pizzas coming out of the oven are so delectable. It’s a Neapolitan-style pie, thin-crusted with a chewy, lightly charred edge. We watch as pizza maker Austen Taylor crafts one for us, topped with fresh mozzarella, Italian prosciutto, arugula, and a mound of burrata in the center. She finishes the pie with a sprinkle of sea salt and drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, explaining that one should spread a little of the burrata on each slice.

While the pizza and other dishes are very good, it’s Lucarelli’s pasta dishes that are not to be missed. All the pasta is made in-house, and shows off the chef’s immense talent and creativity. A dish of perfectly cooked pappardelle is a delicious taste of fall with smoked duck breast, wild mushrooms, and cherry tomatoes cooked into a savory sauce with veal stock. Plump agnolotti are filled with veal shoulder and prosciutto, topped with earthy truffles. And rigatoni is served with a meaty Bolognese that’s been simmered for eight hours.

As we enjoy these dishes at a table near the bar, Mike Hollowell, the beverage manager, offers us cocktails. He mixes up a Bees Knees, named for the Barr Hill Reserve Tom Cat gin that has a honey finish. It’s blended with Aperol—a slightly bitter aperitif, fresh lime juice, soda, and a splash of simple syrup for a taste that’s a little bitter and a little sweet and very smooth. As the bar begins to fill up with patrons, Hollowell is busy blending more cocktails, like the blueberry lemon drop martini, and pouring glasses of wine from the short but well-curated list. The restaurant recently introduced a new bar menu, featuring specialties such as the ever-popular grilled sausage with roasted peppers and onions and melted provolone. A light and lemony shrimp scampi is served on a thick piece of ciabatta bread, perfect for soaking up the tangy sauce. With the crazy summer season behind him, Lucarelli now offers specials almost every night of the week, including a popular steak night on Fridays with ribeye for just $1 per ounce. Wednesdays feature lasagna, served in enormous portions.

Lucarelli is proud of his past experience, but he takes the most pride in having his own place to display his skills. “I was cooking other people’s food; that was a great school for me,” he says. “But at some point you have to get your own identity.” He seems to have found his spot here on the Maine coast, where he can look out over the water and cook what he wants. “I enjoy every day,” he says. The chef now wants to know when I’m coming for brunch. It won’t be long, I promise him.

Ports of Italy | 4 Western Ave. | Kennebunk | 207.204.0365 | portsofitaly.com