It was a big surprise. We were headed to Bethel to stay at the Bethel Inn and Resort to write a preview of the town’s fall Harvest Fest, and we wanted to try at least one new restaurant.

We’d read an interesting Down East magazine review of John and Amy Amann’s restaurant at their Gideon Hastings House inn at 22 Broad Street. Down East’s Ginny Wright described the food as “down-to-earth Italian.”

Fools for all things Italian, we asked Wende Gray, a marketing consultant who was putting our Bethel trip together, to schedule us for dinner there.

Wow! We were absolutely stunned by the high quality of our meal and experience, one of our best this year. And we’ve eaten in a lot of restaurants!

George

Our server Sheila, fresh from a high-level restaurant position in Florida and married to the golf pro at Bethel Inn, was extraordinarily knowledgeable, helpful and funny. We arrived early, before the dinner crowd, and had the wrap-around porch to ourselves for much of our meal, laughing and talking with Sheila as she brought us one amazing dish after another.

This restaurant, new to us, has actually been open for 6 years. We wish we’d discovered it 6 years ago.

We began with a nice bottle of Chianti Classico, from Italy of course. But they do offer a comprehensive list of wine and beer, with recommendations for pairings with each entrée.

A hint of what was to come arrived when Sheila delivered very tasty bread with a hint of rosemary and an oil/vinegar dipping sauce. Bob Dylan was quietly singing in the background, and all was right in the world.

Soup and salad were shared and both were extraordinary. But it was my entrée that was the biggest surprise.

For many years, I always ordered lasagna in Italian restaurants. It was safe, consistent and hearty.

But since we began travel-writing in January, I have had to grow more adventurous. I’d decided on the Veal Saltimbocca until Sheila convinced me to order the “Crispy Eggplant Lasagna, layered with pesto, roasted red peppers and portobellos.”

We often go with the recommendations of the chef or server when reviewing a restaurant, so I went with the lasagna — somewhat reluctantly.

Holy cow. This was not any lasagna I have ever eaten. The presentation was so awesome I was reluctant to dig in. The eggplant layer on top was crispy, the house red sauce very tasty, the portion huge. And I’m not doing this justice. It was extraordinary.

Ray Lamontagne was singing “Trouble, trouble, trouble,” in the background. But we had no trouble tonight!

We shared two sides — a risotto that was a creamy, cheesy perfection — and a zucchini dish. Between the two of us, we couldn’t finish either one.

But I would have licked my plate of lasagna if other diners had not arrived on the porch. After the first bite, I felt like running out into the street, stopping traffic and directing them into the restaurant.

Linda reminded me that I’d had a meatless day — eggplant parmesan the previous night and again for lunch that very day. I sure hope this doesn’t mean I’m turning into a vegetarian!

I think I’ll just redefine eggplant as meat. Linda says this is not an original thought.

Everything on the menu is made right here, including limoncello, which we enjoyed after our perfectly torched crème brule and some homemade raspberry gelato.

While the atmosphere is casual, the service is first class, including new utensils with each dish. Prices are very reasonable with appetizers and salads less than $10 and entrees from $18 to $25 — especially reasonable for the quality of the food.

You can get a large Porterhouse steak for two (one of five steaks on the menu), a daily fish dish, crab cakes, and chicken, and some of these looked really good as they went by us to other diners.

But my next meal here will be lasagna — hopefully very soon.

Linda

In an old Greek Revival House in the heart of Bethel, you will find a gem of a restaurant serving authentic Italian cuisine. The Gideon Hastings House has been turned into a cozy eatery with a martini bar.

It was a great suggestion by the hostess to sit on the porch. The main dining room was quite special with its gorgeous tin punched ceiling, and we initially selected inside seating. We went with the hostess’ suggestion and were so glad we did. The ambiance on that porch was lovely — baskets of flowers, tiny white lights and hummingbird feeders made this a comfy place to spend a long time enjoying our meal.

They will start you out with house-made focaccia served with a balsamic and olive oil dipping sauce. There was a good selection of appetizers — seafood such as shrimp, mussels or calamari is offered in several ways. We chose to start with the Soup of the Season (which only comes by the bowl). That night’s was Chicken Florentine, a tomato-based soup with chicken, spinach, beans and carrots. Wow! The rich broth was very delicious, and that soup alone would be a pretty wonderful meal.

The arugula salad with deep-fried gorgonzola balls with fresh-squeezed lemon was off the charts. Certainly one of the best salads I’ve ever had. There were five other unique salads to choose from as well. ($8.50)

Any place that serves homemade ravioli is a hit with me, but 22 Broad Street actually offers the chef’s preparation of “Ravioli of the Day.” Mine was a ricotta filling with proscuitto and other cheeses. I’m still dreaming about that dish. Holy moly.

We split two desserts. The fresh raspberry gelato was much lighter than ice cream and refreshing. The Crème Brulee was perfection -a crispy sugared top over smooth creamy custard. Soooo good.

You only need a couple unique dishes to make a name for your restaurant, but 22 Broad Street has several unique ones. Everything here is homemade, and everything we ate here was perfect. If you’re looking for an incredible authentic Italian meal, this is the place.

As the sky went pink over the Bethel Inn right across the street, we offered up a thank you to Ginny Wright at Down East for her story on 22 Broad Street. This is a dinner to die (and drive) for.

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


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