Our Rating  

Cinque Terre
36 Wharf Street

Five plates!  
Cinque Terre Reviewed: Fall, 2004

The Cinque Terre. Five little towns nestled in a row along the north western coast of Italy. There's only one train that goes through the towns running between the two bigger cities of Genoa and La Spezia. Once you leave the train, depending on which town you've departed in, you may have to walk through a tunnel, climb a steep hill, perhaps walk quite a distance to actually get to the town center. But once you do arrive, it is well worth it. Quaint villages of yellow, pink and salmon-colored homes with matching terra cotta rooves built on the steep mountainous ridges of the Italian coastline. Huge crashing waves and turquoise sparkling water bordered by white pebbly beaches.

The Cinque Terre used to be completely unheard of, a European gem known to few, until it was discovered by renowed travel expert Rick Steves who let the whole rest of the world in on the well-kept beautiful secret. I was fortunate enough to have visited the region this past summer and even more fortunate to have found the native cuisine right here in Portland at the new restaurant, aptly named, Cinque Terre.

The restaurant Cinque Terre boasts Ligurian cuisine as its focus. Indeed the Cinque Terre is situated in the region of Liguria in Italy, the home of pesto, where lemon and lime trees grow abundantly and vineyards stretch as far as the eye can see. In Monterosso al Mare, one of the Cinque Terre, I learned of several local specialties including: the delicious Genovese Pesto which you can find at any restaurant served upon trofie, unique pasta twists made solely to eat with pesto; limoncino, a sweet lemon dessert liqueur; and a local wine specialty known as schiacchetra, a very sweet white wine pressed from near-raisins. When I heard that a restaurant was opening in the Old Port serving the cuisine of the Cinque Terre, I was very excited, looking forward to sampling these specialties once again and being able to share them with others.

I must admit, I enjoyed the food at Portland's Cinque Terre even more than anything we had in the real Cinque Terre. They have managed to grasp the feeling of true Italian dining, something which was quite a shock at first to all of us from two-course America. Where we are mostly accustomed to eating soup/salad followed by a large entrée all in under an hour time span, Italians like to draw out dinner to an entire-evening event.

At Portland's Cinque Terre, they explain this process in brief and recommend that you order one of each course but it's not enforced. You can select as many or as few courses as you prefer, in full or half portions. You can have a large pasta as your entrée, or a half pasta for a primi dish. There are many selections on the menu in addition to a great deal of daily specials grouped into seven course categories: Antipasti, Minestre e Zuppe, Pasta, Risotti, Insalate, Secondi, and Dolci.

We have visited Cinque Terre on several occasions, receiving the same amicable service and wonderful food each time. The inside of the restaurant is painted pastel green and lemon yellow, with tables dressed in white cloths. One large sweeping arch opens to the kitchen where one can see the busy chefs preparing the aromatic cuisine. There are a good amount of various sized tables on the floor with more lining the balcony upstairs. It is a very open and welcoming space. During the summer, there is a small patio area outside which is just tucked away enough off of Wharf Street as to block the noisy foot traffic passing by.

For my first trial, we all decided on four small courses (I was aiming for five but I just couldn't find any more room for dessert!). My meal started out with Focaccia ai tre pesti, a delicious selection of pestos, a sweet sundried tomato pesto, a walnut pesto and a garlicky basil pesto, served with fresh focaccia bread. The bread was a little much considering they had already served us a complimetnary basket of the deliciously warm soft bread, but it was excellent nonetheless. I skipped the soup course and went directly to pasta. I had chosen Pasta a tre formaggi, pasta with the chef's choice of three cheeses. The pasta choice for this night was spaghetti with parmesan, fontina and another mild soft cheese, the combination of which was unbelievable. The creamy melted cheese mixture coated each strand of the perfectly cooked al dente spaghetti. The portion was very reasonable. The perfect amount to satisfy yet still leave you hanging on wanting more. My next course, which was supposed to be Insalata di finocchio e parmigiano, fennel salad with shaved fresh parmesan cheese, got lost in the process as did all of our Insalata courses, but I did not really mind since that just meant that the well-anticipated Secondi entrée was sooner to arrive that expected. I had ordered the Vitello alla Milanese which turned out to be two medium sized veal filets, breaded and cooked until crispy, served completely alone on a simple white plate. No veggies, no garnish, just the straight forward entrée that I ordered. It was delicious, very tender inside the crunchy breading, and just the right sized portion. My entire meal was excellent. So good in fact, that we returned the following week for another chance to sample some of the other tempting menu items.

On this second occasion, I tried the Mozzarella, pomodori e basilico plate as my Antipasti, finally got to try the fennel salad, and could not refuse the Pasta ai tre formaggi again, only as a full portion entrée this time. Once again, I was more than satisfied with the delicious meal. The mozzarella and tomato plate was beautiful, stripes of yellow, green and red tomatoes interspersed with slices of fresh mozzarella all drizzled with the slightest bit of olive oil and balsamic vinegar and accompanied by huge pungent bright green basil leaves. The fennel salad was refreshing, but a bit too much. It was half fresh crunchy fennel and half mixed greens with a wonderful dressing but the fennel was a little bit overwhelming. And of course the pasta, which was penne with the same three cheeses, was as tasty as I had remembered. The portion was significantly larger and much more filling.

wheelchair accessible
vegetarian selections
vegan selections
most credit cards accepted
Other memorable courses for my fellow diners on both trips included: Asparagi Verdi gratinti alla parmiagiano, a simple appetizer of perfectly cooked asparagus strands topped with freshly shaved parmesan cheese; Penne alla vodka, a delightful dish which, as far as we have been able to tell can only be found at one other restaurant in the Portland area, al dente penne topped with delicious rich creamy tomato sauce infused with a hint of vodka; a Gnocchi del giorno selection which on this particular night happened to be the small potato pasta balls served with a gorgonzola cream sauce, incredibly rich and well enjoyed by all at the table; and the Cotoletta al rosmario, lamb chops with rosemary, garlic and red wine.

On both visits, others in my party enjoyed their entire meals just as much as I did. We all were able to sample different menu items and I think between our two visits, covered a good deal of the selections. We still haven't made to dessert yet though. We'll just have to go back! Thanks to the owners and talented staff of this new restaurant, we can all enjoy the exquisite cuisine of the Cinque Terre without leaving Maine!  back to the top


Tracy B. Wheeler is a classical flutist and freelance writer who lives in Portland.









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