George

In early January we enjoyed a spectacular Italian feast at Rustica on Rockland’s Main Street. Chef/owner John Stowe is a very friendly guy, and boy, can he cook. The restaurant is lovely with wooden tables, soft lighting and beautiful art. But it’s the staff that really shines. Our server has worked here for six and a half years and was super knowledgeable about the menu, which is a good thing because it is lengthy.

I enjoyed a delicious glass of Layer Cake Primitivo ($9), which paired well with my entree — John’s housemade risotto — a dish that lets his creativity shine, because he changes it every night. Mine included housemade chicken bacon sausage in tomato parmesan risotto with baby arugala and artichokes ($22). The portion was massive, and I enjoyed it for lunch when we got home.

When the risotto was set in front of me, the smell was divine. Before I could take a bite, I heard Linda say, as her entree was set in front of her, “Wow!” My own “Wow!” followed shortly thereafter. I started with a bit of sausage. Then an artichoke. Yup, the tomato sauce was creamy, and I loved the arugula topping. Linda explained that it is unusual to have tomato in risotto.

I especially enjoyed the fresh bread dipped in Fiori’s olive oil. The Fiori store at the other end of Main Street is always a destination for us anytime we are in Rockland. I could have eaten a platter of the fried artichokes in the salad. The sampling of gnocchi that John sent out for us to try was superb, perfectly cooked, with shrimp. Linda actually made me stop eating it so as to have room for my entree.

We’ve enjoyed pizza here for lunch and can report that it is very, very good. The affordable prices bring lots of families here, and they have an inviting bar where some guests enjoy sitting.

Linda

It is no surprise that I love fresh pasta. Finding a restaurant that makes creative pasta dishes makes me very happy. So John Stowe has a new groupie now that I have had a chance to have dinner at Rustica.

The restaurant has a big, open dining space flanked by a beautiful bar at one end and floor-to-ceiling windows at the other. Candlelight and tablecloths of white and navy add to the charming ambience.

I had no sooner sat down when two interesting dishes arrived at the next table. They came in bowls big enough to be serving plates, so I quickly noted that portions here are huge. Their housemade wheat bread was crusty perfection and perfect with the olive oil.

A unique fried artichoke salad ($8.50) caught my eye right off. Greens, shaved fennel, orange segments and toasted pine nuts were dressed with an orange vinaigrette. Luckily, George remembered that the salads here are big, so he suggested we split one as our appetizer. Those warm, tangy artichoke pieces were coated with a nice crispy batter, and my oh my, were they good.

Just when we were mesmerized by the salad, Adrian, our server, brought out the plates of gnocchi. We love gnocchi but rarely order it because it is usually a disappointment. But Rustica’s version is extraordinary. John makes a ricotta gnocchi and combines them with shrimp, tomatoes and baby spinach and tops them with a superb white wine tomato sauce. I did not know that gnocchi could be made of anything but potato. Perhaps that’s why they were so light and fluffy. I can only eat a little gnocchi usually, as this can be a heavy dish. But with the lighter sauce and the addition of veggies, I could easily have enjoyed this one as my entree. But we stopped eating and brought the rest home so that we could save room for our pasta to come.

Cavatelli is a rolled pasta, and I have never seen fresh cavatelli on a menu before. So the housemade cavatelli ($18) was a must-try. Grilled chicken, charred red peppers, shiitake mushrooms, spinach and white wine cream sauce put this cavatelli into a new category of eye-rolling good. We talked with John in the kitchen before we left, and I asked him about the cavatelli. He told me it involves feeding a strip of pasta into a hand-cranked machine. He got tired of cranking and now attaches a power drill, churning them out at a much faster speed. “Rat a tat tat, it’s like it is spitting bullets,” John said, grinning like a little boy. This is a chef who enjoys his work and takes great care to cook from scratch.

When the cavatelli dish arrived, I thought it could feed three people. When I’d finished, it looked like I’d barely started. We’d be enjoying this one as a meal at home, too.

The cannoli shells and fillings are all made here as well. Again, I don’t know too many places that do that. The fillings change regularly, and that night’s was a chocolate walnut filling.

We asked to share an order as our dessert, and Adrian concurred this was a good choice. “Oh, that’s good, there are two, so you don’t have to battle with forks over it.”

That cannoli couldn’t have been more perfect. Just like Rustica.

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


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