Great food and a beautiful restaurant within sight of L.L. Bean!

George

Going to L.L. Bean to shop for Christmas? Don’t drive by the Tuscan Brick Oven Bistro just north of and across the street from Bean’s! This restaurant is charming and beautiful and the food is bountiful and delicious. This is a real find.

We enjoyed one of our best meals of the year here two weeks ago. The restaurant was surprisingly packed for a Sunday night, yet no one hurried us and we lingered with our friends Ed and Cate Pineau, of Vassalboro, who recommended the Tuscan.

The interior — with lots of wood including wonderful old wooden floors — and the gorgeous Christmas decorations were stunning. I really liked the setup of tables, with a dining room to the right, separated from other dining tables and a long bar, and couches and comfy chairs along the windows in the front, giving you lots of choices.

Yvonne, our server who is a French native of Scotland, was very friendly and well informed about the food. She was also very patient, explaining many of the dishes as we struggled to make choices from among the outstanding offerings.

Here’s what I loved: the brick-oven pizza ($11-$13 for a 10-inch); the House Meatball Stuffed Portobello ($12); the Braised Local Rabbit ($18); the Bolognese ($18); and the Faroe Island Salmon ($24). OK, that was all the food the four of us ordered.

I’d been eyeing all the pizzas lined up on a counter waiting to go into one of the two brick ovens and they looked delicious, so I was pleased when Ed ordered that night’s special pizza. The piece he shared with me was very good, with a crispy crust of medium thickness, and especially tasty topped with genoa salami.

I was even more grateful when Ed talked me into the rabbit dish. He’d had it both times he and Cate ate here previously. It was a slowly braised rabbit, over hand-cut pappardelle pasta (my favorite — I love the thickness) with roasted sweet corn, sauteed zucchini, vine-ripened tomatoes, crimini mushrooms and baby spinach, drenched in a delicious alfredo sauce and topped with smoked prosciutto crumble. There were even some bacon bits on top of that. You got it. Wow!

Portions are plentiful here, and I could only eat half of this. Trust me when I say that my lunch of the leftovers at home the next day was equally special!

Despite stiff resistance from Linda, I was able to order the meatball appetizer ($12) after promising to share it with all of them. And I did. It was absolutely delicious and quite spicy — a veal meatball, wood-grilled portobello mushroom, San Marzano tomato sauce, Taleggio cheese, micro basil and extra virgin olive oil. It has a distinctly smoky flavor, and was described by Linda as “not for the faint of heart.”

I hope to return soon to have a glass of wine and this appetizer, which will be plenty of food for dinner.

And, speaking of wine, they have a nice list of both wine and beer, including some of Maine’s best brews, very reasonably priced. I enjoyed a generous pour of Nicodemi Terrana Montepulciano d’Abruzzo ($9), which has been a personal favorite since our trip to Montepulciano five years ago.

Linda had a glass of the Toscolo Chianti ($8). It’s tough to get her to order any other kind of wine ever since our first trip to Italy. And trust me, we have a lot of Chianti at home!

Linda’s Bolognese was fantastic, and my fork kept drifting her way for that. Cate also shared her dish with me. She’d had the salmon both times they’d been here, and she flirted with the idea of the Wood Grilled Hanger Steak ($26) or the Spicy Zuppa di Pesce ($26) — a shrimp, scallops, calamari and mussel dish that sounded fantastic, but in the end, she got the salmon again.

That probably tells you all you need to know about it — but I can also tell you that the salmon was perfectly cooked and came with some delicious sides. I was particularly impressed with the discussion Yvonne had with Cate about how the salmon should be cooked.

I love L.L. Bean, and now I have another great excuse to head for Freeport!

Linda

First of all, most anything with Tuscan in its name is probably going to tempt me. It is so bad that when I last shopped for a car, I was immediately sold when told the car’s color was Tuscan Red. So when friends Ed and Cate started tossing around the name “Tuscan Bistro” as a place to try, I was ready to go.

As I opened the impressive door to the restaurant, I was enveloped in the smell of garlic. And resting my eyes on the menus sitting on our table, I spied the unmistakable symbol of Tuscany — the rooster. On our first trip to Italy we were schooled to look for the rooster symbol on wine bottles which signifies the grapes were grown and wine manufactured in the Chianti region of Tuscany. I thought this was going to be a great meal, and I was indeed impressed with every bite of food I tasted that evening.

George correctly assumed that I would want a glass of Chianti and, of course, there were many nice Italian wine offerings. My eyes lit up as our server, Yvonne, delivered two baskets of bread. She explained that one contained Tuscan bread and the other black olive bread. As I dipped mine in some Italian olive oil, I decided this might be my idea of the best comfort food on earth. I liked both, but it was the olive bread that hooked me. I went back for seconds (perhaps thirds), and wrapped the remaining two slices in the basket in a napkin to bring home.

I needed no more appetizer than the bread. Perfection. But I did try a bite of George’s Meatball Stuffed Portobello Mushroom. It looked like a meal, so it was lucky that we had four diners to tackle it! The meatball was elegant and was a great bite when combined with the mushroom and red sauce.

Their menu offers a wide variety of choices, including brick-oven baked pizza. The entrees range from risotto to many creative preparations of meat. Cate’s Farro Island Salmon dish was a beautiful presentation of fish, pilaf and salad that included fennel and oranges. I believe she enjoyed it just as much as the first two times she had it. Nothing wrong with sticking to something you love.

I have to say that if a restaurant is making its own pasta, I’m pretty much sold on that section of the menu without giving the rest of the menu fair consideration. Narrowing down my choice of type of pasta dish was an easy choice once Yvonne told us that their Bolognese was amazing and very popular.

This Bolognese included braised beef from Pineland Farm and house fennel sausage in their version of ragu. The house-made trumpet-shaped pasta was cooked to perfection. The dish was topped with a dollop of fresh ricotta cheese, basil and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. I fell in love with the first taste. That was the best ragu I have ever tasted, including any I ate in Tuscany. I think it was the texture of the large pieces of braised beef that put it in a different class.

I shared the dish with everyone else at the table and it was unanimous — the Bolognese here is off the charts. Cate decided it was the best she’d had as well, and intends to order it the next time she comes. And as you now know, it takes a lot to get Cate to stop ordering that salmon!

I had plenty to bring home for lunch the next day and it reheated beautifully. Man, I am going to crave that Bolognese sauce!

The Tuscan Bistro focuses on obtaining local meats, fish and produce and has included a list of all the local sources of products they use on their menu. Attention to ingredients, presentation and service make this a standout choice for lunch or dinner the next time you are in Freeport. And it’s worth the drive just to eat there.

Visit George’s website — georgesmithmaine.com — for book reviews, outdoor news and all Travelin’ Maine(rs) columns, found listed in the “Best of Maine” section.


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