It’s the best thing to happen to a neighborhood restaurant: Get purchased by local chefs who are in no rush to take the wheel and make a hard turn.
“We are going to move slowly, slowly and take baby steps,” said Ilma Lopez, seated in a front booth at Caiola’s Restaurant with her husband Damian Sansonetti. Why muck with a sure thing?
The husband and wife team behind Portland’s popular Piccolo purchased the 10-year-old West End hang recently and officially took over a week ago. So far, regulars have reported few turbulents.
“We want to welcome people and get comfortable,” said Sansonetti, a Pittsburgh native who has cooked his way through a string of star-studded restaurants like Bar Boulud in NYC and The White Elephant on Nantucket Island. With the new acquisition, Sansonetti is now the head chef at Caiola’s and Piccolo sou chef Luke Aberle takes over the range at their intimate Middle Street Italian bistro.
The couple has ideas for wine dinners, to work in more local produce and feng shui the space, but that is all down the road. For now the biggest change is an Italian ice cream maker in the back and new energy coursing through the sage and terra cotta building, which they now own.
As a trained French chef, Sansonetti says “I’d like to incorporate some classic French dishes like coq au vin and croque monsieur” and add a Spanish twist. You could call it Mediterranean, but they hesitate to label Caiola’s 2.0 just yet. “I want to cook some fun food and make you happy,” he said.
About that ice cream maker? It also makes gelato. Lopez, a skilled pastry chef, is quietly turning Caiola’s dessert menu into her brand of sophisticated after dinner delights that complement, not negate, the meal. “We are super excited,” said Lopez.
By not starting from zero, the couple will work with Caiola’s staff and slowly add their special sauce. “This gives us time to live in the space,” she said.
Sansonetti relishes the freedom the much larger restaurant provides as well as the chance to mentor young cooks. “It’s a blank canvas with no boundaries,” he said.
Caiola’s now takes online reservations at Seatme.com. They are open Wed. through Sunday from 5p to 9:30/10p. Brunch is Sunday from 9a to 2 p.m. If you go: Check out the patio in the back! Address: 58 Pine St., Portland.