We enjoy Italian-American food, but despaired of ever finding the authentic Italian food we love without having to leave Maine  — until we got to Gagliano’s Italian Bistro in downtown Augusta. It was an amazing surprise!

Linda

I’ve been searching for authentic Italian food ever since our first trip to Italy. It’s a taste unlike the Italian food we find here in the U.S. And lo and behold, the flavors I’ve been craving are being served at a relatively new restaurant on Water Street in Augusta — Gagliano’s.

Helena, the owner, greets us at the door with warmth and exuberance. She grew up in Italy, lived in Sweden for part of her childhood and was living in Florence when she met her American husband.

Her English is impeccable, as she had studied to be an interpreter. But there wasn’t much need for that career in Maine, and she told us she “decided to do what all good Italians do — open a restaurant.” Thank goodness for that. She sought out a chef from Italy, and you will hear Italian conversations among some of the staff.

Helena’s goal is to get whatever they can fresh, and import most ingredients from Italy — making it truly Italian. The gnocchi, ravioli and some pastas are made right at the restaurant. They make all of their own dressings, sauces and desserts. And it shows in all of the food we tasted.

You will start with bread served with garlic aioli sauce. It’s not a mayonnaise-type aioli though. Helena gives me a full description of that sauce once I inquire about it. Whole milk, garlic and canola oil are whipped into a frothy perfection and it’s just heavenly on the baguette slices.

I don’t even know where to start with my order because all the familiar dishes that remind me of great meals in Italy are here, and I want to try them all. The menu has Italian names of the dishes, but don’t panic because the descriptions are in English.

I started with a small Caesar salad that came with slices of lemon and big shavings of Parmesan. Their dressings are fantastic, and I appreciate being served an appropriate-sized salad so I can enjoy my main course. We were anxious to try a sampling of their pastas, and ended up with a trying small portions of gnocchi and ravioli, as well as a full portion of the pappardelle with duck ragu (meat sauce).

Holy cow. The first bite of the gnocchi was the pillowy soft version served in Italy. In fact, it was better than some we tried over there! I ordered the Gorgonzola walnut sauce, making this a very rich dish. I’m not sure I could eat a whole portion, but George assures me he certainly could. The delicious handmade pumpkin ravioli came in a sage and pistachio sauce.

I wanted to try something new, so I ordered the Braciolette di Maiale, a pork loin stuffed with sage, ham and mozzarella. This is not a New England style serving of pork. It is both different and delicious. Roasted potatoes and perfectly cooked zucchini and asparagus round out this dish making it a bargain at $18. George and I shared this dish as well as the pasta dish with duck, and both were amazing.

Helena promotes her food so well, and we really wanted to try so many dishes. It would have been enough for several meals! It’s now on our agenda to come back to try other entrees featuring veal or chicken, but it’s hard to forgo that perfect pasta! Thank goodness Gagliano’s is a restaurant in our backyard. We’ll certainly be back.

 

George

With my first bite of those delicious Gnocchi Gorgonzola Noci, I was transported to our favorite small café in Greve’s village square, amazed at both the flavors and the ease with which this dish took me back to Tuscany.

I won’t denigrate the Italian chain restaurants here, but if you like them you will absolutely love Gagliano’s. You will be astonished to discover the tastes of real Italian food.

With a commitment to downtown Augusta and to the food of her native Italy, Helena Gagliano has created a wonderful dining experience. Chef Ricardo, who emerged every once in a while from the kitchen to offer directions in Italian to the wait staff, came here from the Venetian in Las Vegas. Helena says she “made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.”

When your 72-year-old mother in Sicily still makes bread, pasta and gnocchi, as Helena’s does, you’ve got to shoot for a high standard. At Gagliano’s Italian Bistro, she’s made her mother proud.

We thoroughly enjoyed visiting with Helena throughout our meal, as well as hearing the story of her marriage to an Augusta native who met her in Italy when he was on leave from his military service in Afghanistan. We were impressed by her knowledge of food and wine, and captivated by her enthusiasm for offering customers real Italian food. Apparently there is prosciutto, and then there is prosciutto from Italy!

Helena has decorated the old Java Joes café nicely, but it only seats 46 people and is crowded on weekends. We’re predicting a move to larger quarters someday. You should call ahead for a reservation, no matter when you plan to dine here.

The wine list is short but exceptional, due partly to the fact that Helena’s family is in the wine business and she has chosen wines to please every palate. Helena actually knows the owners of some of the wineries that produce the wine offered here. Her recommendations for us — a Chianti for Lin and a Nero D’avola for me — were superb at $7 per glass. Bottles are priced mostly in the $20 range.

Well, let me tell you about my meal. The garlic aioli sauce that came with the bread was really tasty — good enough to drink! The Insalata di Camp Con Salmone was a delicious salad with their own smoked salmon, greens, orange slices and a wonderful citrus dressing.

The gnocchi was astonishing, but I grabbed the Papparedelle all’Anatra and claimed it as my own. With the thick pasta noodles I prefer, and a duck ragu to die for, this was over-the-top great.

My chocolate tart was rich, thick and served with a wonderful chocolate sauce, a bit of raspberry in the center with blackberries and whipped cream (made from sour cream). Superb presentation. Superb dessert.

There were, however, many regrets. The Caciucco — a fish bouillabaisse with market-fresh clams, mussels, crab, lobster and haddock; the Petto d’Anatra al Porto — duck breast and figs in a Port wine ragu; the Scaloope di Vitello al Marsala — veal, mushrooms and marsala; a whole array of appetizers including Polpette Picannit — the house’s spicy meatballs in marinara sauce, and the risottos. Such a large and amazing menu. So many things we didn’t get to try.

We visited during Thanksgiving week and put Gagliano’s on our list of new things for which we are thankful. Now, the rest is up to you. This restaurant is something special for our area. Let’s make sure it is a success. You know what you need to do. We’ll see you there!

Visit George’s website: www.georgesmithmaine.com for travel tips, book reviews, outdoor news and more.