George

For great Italian food, you’d look for someone who grew up in Italy, wouldn’t you? Well, let us introduce you to Sara Jenkins, who was born in Camden but raised in Italy, Spain and Lebanon, the daughter of a foreign correspondent and a food writer.

Sara ate her way through all of those Mediterranean cultures, and started her cooking career in Boston before moving to Florence, Italy, finally returning to the United States to open two restaurants in New York City. She’s drawn a lot of attention there, including from famous chef and TV star Mario Batali, who said, “She’s one of the few chefs in America who understands Italy and how Italians eat.”

Well, that quote was all we needed to schedule a visit to Sara’s new restaurant, Nina June, in Rockport, and I can tell you we are very lucky to have her here in Maine. Mario Batali is right.

While the harbor view out the windows of her restaurant is beautiful, I found myself in the hills of Tuscany as I enjoyed Sara’s very creative and authentic Italian cuisine, using lots of Maine grown produce.

Our server, Margaret, was friendly and helpful, a Camden girl working here to pay off her college loans. The wine and beer list is fairly short, but features plenty of great choices. We, of course, selected an Italian wine.

I started with fried smelts ($12), taking me back to childhood when Dad and I would go smelting and Mom would fry them up. Well, no disrespect for Mom, but these were the best fried smelts I’ve ever had: crispy with a delicious housemade tartar sauce.

My entree was Chitarra ($22), one of the few things that is always on Sara’s menu, which she changes every week. This is a housemade fresh egg pasta, “butcher’s ragu” of beef, veal and pork, parmigiano, sage and rosemary. I’ve had a similar dish in Italy and always loved it, but I loved this one even more. The sauce had a real depth of flavor. And the very generous portion allowed me to enjoy it again when we got home.

Linda

This Rockport restaurant has a relaxing atmosphere. Its white walls and high ceilings are anchored with unadorned wooden tables. Some have bench seating on one side with throw pillows, lending a comfy, cozy feel. The open kitchen gives diners a clear view of what’s cooking.

We dined with daughter Rebekah and son-in-law Patrick Mellor. Not only is this a good place to dine with friends and family, it also gives you a chance to sample more dishes.

We began with Nina June’s freshly made focaccia. It had a chewy texture and a salt and sesame-topped crust. Olive oil with dukkah, a nut and herb blend, came as a dipping oil. I am such a sucker for great bread.

I ordered the Caramelized Onion Tart with Han’s End blue cheese and arugula for my appetizer. It’s flaky crust and savory filling made this a standout. All who sampled it agreed. What a great beginning to a meal.

Rebekah’s soup starter was also very good. It was a creamy concoction of carrot, celery root, red onion, apple and ginger. Rebekah said “the apples and croutons added nice texture to the creamy soup. You could taste the ginger but it was not overstated.”

Both Beck and I ordered the risotto as our entree. There are several types of rice used in Italy for risotto. This version used carnaroli rice and added spinach, apple, walnuts, Pecorino cheese, shallots and vegetable stock. It had a nice texture from the walnuts. The apples added a unique flavor which I really enjoyed. It was hardy and both of us came home with leftovers.

Patrick’s entree of swordfish was the most spectacular presentation. Radicchio and radish slices stood on top the fish making it look like a work of art. A pomegranate and shallot dressing finished it off. George grabbed a bite and noted that the fish was perfectly cooked, nice and tender.

Our friendly server, Margaret, made our evening enjoyable. As she carefully replaced our silverware after each course, she chatted comfortably with us. And I’m grateful to her for recommending the Chocolate Truffle Cake for dessert. She didn’t have to get too far into her description of this flourless torte before we’d made up our minds. George and I did agree to split a piece, and it is a good thing. I think I would have eaten an entire piece. This was chocolate at its best. Creamy, dreamy and a little slice of heaven.

And Nina June is a little slice of Italy right here in Maine!

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.