George

Rockland is a major destination these days, but we were still surprised when Rustica restaurant was packed on a cold Thursday night. I guess delicious and creative Italian dishes draw patrons every night of the week.

At a nearby table, a couple was celebrating their 25th anniversary, while we enjoyed a delicious dinner with our daughter Rebekah and son-in-law Patrick. This has been on our favorites list for years, and we love the creativity of chef and owner John Shaw.

The staff here is friendly and our server, Lynn, who is usually tending bar here, was attentive and helpful. We also enjoyed visiting with John in the kitchen, where he is a jovial chef.

John had just changed his menu after about 5 years of serving the same dishes, so we were compelled to try new things — which turned out to be a good thing. Lynn later told us he’d still make the dishes that used to be on the menu if you asked for them.

Linda and I started with a nice glass of Chianti from Italy ($9 glass) while we perused the menu. It was a tough decision, but for an entrée I chose the sausage and crispy eggplant. The description pulled me in: fettucini with housemade sausage, fried eggplant, fresh mozzarella, marinara, baby spinach and garlic bread ($19). Yes, prices here are reasonable, especially when you see the large portions.

This dish was delicious and nicely spiced, but I could eat only a small portion, because in addition to our chosen appetizer, John sent out a shrimp and polenta dish that was amazing. The other three tried a bite, and then I ate it all.

Sadly, we were unable to eat dessert. John’s cannolis are fantastic.

The restaurant’s two rooms are lovely, with wooden tables, an inviting bar, soft lighting and beautiful art. But it’s the food that continues to bring us here, and with the new menu, we’ve got a good excuse to get back soon.

Linda

A dinner at Rustica is always a treat. On a recent cold night, we were immediately warmed when we entered to incredible aromas and a restaurant nearly full even though it was 5:30. Lots of diners have discovered what a special place this is, from its housemade pasta to the friendly staff. The local community must call Rustica home, witnessed by the way folks recognized and greeted each other.

The only difficult part of eating here is trying to figure out what to order. Truly, everything on the menu is tempting. John makes pastas, crusty wheat french bread and pizza dough in house.

The appetizers range from stuffed piquillo peppers to risotto balls to mussels. I had settled on one of their many amazing salads as a starter that George and I could split. The fried artichoke salad, ($8.50) of greens, shaved fennel, orange segments and toasted pinenuts with an orange vinaigrette is really hard to beat. Warm crispy artichoke pieces balanced well with the citrus flavors and cold, fresh greens and fennel. This salad is a nice, light starter.

Lynn came over to tell us John was sending something out that we had to try. Along came the shrimp and polenta appetizer that I had almost ordered. Sauteed shrimp had a wonderful garlic flavor, and the crispy fried polenta cake was fantastic. Peppery baby arugula married the flavors, and it was simply out of this world.

Rebekah and Patrick both had a bowl of creamy tomato basil soup, which they loved. The soups change daily here, as does the chef’s risotto selection. Patrick loves, and usually orders, the baby spinach salad with roasted pears and blue cheese. It did indeed look good.

I urged George to branch out and try something new for his entrée. Then I quietly ordered the same pasta I tried the last time I was here. To his credit, he didn’t even give me a hard time about it. But really, do you know any other restaurant that makes their own rolled cavatelli pasta?

John’s housemade cavatelli ($18) combines grilled marinated chicken, crispy prosciutto, sage, fresh baby spinach and a hint of garlic. The wine cream sauce brings it all together.

It turns out that John had changed up the ingredients of this dish, too, so I did branch out.

Portions are large here, and we were certainly not the only ones leaving with leftovers. Rustica delivers big portions of creative and delicious food at reasonable prices.

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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