It was dinnertime on a Friday, and my friend Jennifer and I decided to go out for a spontaneous dinner. But without reservations, we knew finding a table in Portland would be challenging. Drifters Wife had a 45-minute wait just to sit at the bar. At Baharat, a little more off the beaten path, the line of people waiting to be seated reached the door.

After a few more tries, Jennifer, frustrated, said what all of us who live here in diners’ paradise have opined at one time or another: “How can we have so many restaurants here, and we can’t get into any of them?”

Then a light bulb went off, and I suggested we try Bruno’s, a traditional, red sauce Italian-American restaurant on Allen Avenue in North Deering. Their parking lot – yes, there’s parking! – is always at least half-full, but it’s not one of the peninsula’s shiny new things, and surely they’d have room for two, right? My friend was skeptical, but when we arrived, we were seated almost immediately, at 7 p.m. on a Friday, in a nearly full dining room. Glory hallelujah. And after splitting an appetizer portion of the light and heavenly eggplant parmigiana, my friend was sold on the place. She returned the following week for lunch.

Flames erupt from saute pans in the kitchen at Bruno’s Restaurant & Tavern. From left are Marc Thuotte, Sam Spinazola and Joseph Call. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Bruno’s and the family that owns it are a part of Portland’s culinary heritage, along with other restaurants in the area that serve classic Italian-American fare – places like Maria’s and Espo’s Trattoria in Portland, Casa Novello in Westbrook, and Anjon’s in Scarborough. At a time when the number of restaurants opening in Portland seems endless, these decades-old standbys are surviving the competition – though not without some struggles – by continuing to serve comfort food like chicken parm and veal saltimbocca. In an era of small plates, they brag about their portion sizes.

They are neighborhood favorites where people eat three or four times a week. “Two tables down, they’ll know somebody,” said Bob Napolitano, owner of Bruno’s.

Instead of starkly decorated dining rooms with lines and lighting reminiscent of an industrial site, these old-school restaurants keep flowers, candles and linens on the tables. The soothing tones of Frank Sinatra and other old-time crooners add to the atmosphere instead of drowning out conversations. In these places, the long-gone Village Cafe – a popular Italian-American family restaurant in the Old Port that was driven out by urban renewal and is still mourned by Portlanders on social media – is remembered with reverence, and the Olive Garden is dismissed as irrelevant.

And the prices? While entrees in Portland’s in vogue restaurants are moving well north of $30, a big plate of housemade pasta and meatballs at Bruno’s still costs less than $20.

John Ponti, a server at Bruno’s Restaurant & Tavern, carries food to waiting diners. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

“We don’t claim to be Solo Italiano,” says Bob Esposito, referring to a sophisticated Old Port fine-dining Italian restaurant. His family has owned Espo’s on outer Congress Street since 1950, when it was called Bob’s Airport Cafe. “We are who we are.”

Italy and Maine

Surviving doesn’t mean these restaurants have had it easy. Even red-sauce Italian joints with a regular customer base have had to make changes to keep the books balanced and diners in the seats. Anjon’s was for sale for a while, during a difficult time when unpaid taxes threatened the restaurant’s survival and the family’s patriarch was seriously ill, but the DiSantos have decided to hang on. They’re making changes they hope will ensure a future for both the family and their restaurant, full of “history and love and passion.”

“The restaurant business is a constant struggle to evolve,” John DiSanto said. “We certainly didn’t want to turn this place into a brew pub.”

Espo’s is on the market, although the owner is in no hurry to sell. Esposito has turned down two offers already, for practical reasons, but it’s his emotional attachment to the place that makes it easier to say no when he has to.

Gary Manoogian, an Armenian who started Casa Novello in 2000 “because everybody loves Italian,” recently sold the restaurant to Hope Lawler, who is breathing new life into it. Lawler, who used to work at Village Cafe, makes her raviolis and sauces from scratch. She’s changed about half the menu, tweaking some dishes (she took the cream out of the linguine with clam sauce) and adding others, such as veal piccata and cheese lasagna.

Chicken Florentine, with a side of linguine, is still a fixture on the menu at Casa Novello in Westbrook, which is under new ownership. Photo by Meredith Goad

“It’s such a great little space,” Lawler said. “The employees have been here forever. I kept everybody on,” she continued. “It just needed a little TLC.”

Ask Bob Napolitano why restaurants like his have lasted for so long, and he gently rolls his eyes, as if you are asking what two plus two equals, and replies “Food’s good.”

Napolitano’s family has deep roots both in Portland and Italy. His grandparents came to the United States from a town near Naples. (Tony Napolitano, the owner of Maria’s, is his cousin.) His mother’s family – the DiMillos, owners of DiMillo’s on the Water – came from the Italian state of Abruzzo.

Napolitano was bartending at Forest Gardens after college when his cousin asked if he wanted to buy Pasquale’s, his bar in a corner of Micucci’s Grocery on India Street, in the heart of what used to be Portland’s Little Italy. And that’s how Bruno’s got its start.

Bruno’s opened in 1981 as a 25-seat bar called Balboa that sold bottled beer and steamed hot dogs. Then, as Napolitano added equipment in the tiny space – “I had just enough room to turn around” – he served steak and cheese sandwiches, burgers, homemade pizza, and linguine with clam sauce. He got a liquor license, too.

“Every year, my business doubled,” he said.

After five years, Napolitano and his brother bought a building at the corner of Fore and India streets. The new restaurant had two dining rooms, a tavern and an outdoor patio. He named it Bruno’s after his grandfather. (Bruno is also Napolitano’s middle name and the name of his nephew, the current bartender.) “A bunch of Italian guys” hung out around the new place, Napolitano said, including his Uncle Frank from New York, who would come into the kitchen and teach Napolitano how to make family dishes. His father taught him, too.

“My father and all his family were all good cooks,” Napolitano said.

In 1989, Napolitano moved the business again, to Market Street, then moved it 10 years later to its current home. Now 62, Napolitano still works every day, deciding the day’s specials, helping out with events and jumping in wherever he’s needed. “At the end of the day, he makes sure all the food is made correctly and is up to his standard,” said Danny Napolitano, Bob’s son and manager of the restaurant. Another son, three nephews, two nieces, a brother-in-law, a sister and an uncle also work there.

Except for the vintage family photos hanging on the walls, the decor at Bruno’s is more 1980s hotel restaurant than old school Italian restaurant. But it’s the food, and the neighborhood vibe, that people come for. Anyone with the notion that this style of restaurant attracts only an older crowd would be wrong. On the night we visited, we saw families, middle-aged couples on date nights and a group of 20-something women celebrating a birthday.

Eggplant, baked with three cheeses and tomato sauce, is a popular appetizer at Bruno’s. Photo by Meredith Goad

Most of the menu is made from scratch, and “we grind all our cheese fresh,” Danny Napolitano said. “That’s important.”

Bruno’s counts among its fans the chef couple who own Piccolo and Chaval in Portland; Damian Sansonetti (who pronounces Bruno’s vodka sauce “awesome”) and Ilma Lopez held staff parties for their restaurants at Bruno’s this year.

Carol Grover of Cumberland Foreside, who is Italian-American, visited Bruno’s one recent Tuesday night with a large group of friends who dine out regularly together. “Their sauces here are really good – like my own,” she said as she was waiting to order. “They’re very authentic.”

The Napolitanos are well aware of the increased competition in town, and know that they are “not bulletproof” and have to “stay sharp,” Danny Napolitano said. The restaurant started working with a new marketing company a few years ago, and is doing more advertising. They’ve also started a business selling their ravioli, which Hannaford stocks at some of its stores. (Espo’s and Maria’s both use Bruno’s ravioli.)

“A lot of those new places (in Portland), they don’t have the history that we have,” Danny Napolitano said. “We’ve been building it for a long time, and we have a lot of family and friends in this town. It’s something you can’t just manufacture.”

KEEP ON KEEPING UP

Bottling the family recipes is one way red sauce Italian restaurants earn extra money. Maria’s has been bottling its marinara and fra diavolo sauces for several years. Anjon’s once bottled its sauce at the restaurant and sold it at Hannaford, but the business grew so big the staff couldn’t handle it anymore and they had to stop. “We were killing ourselves and trying to run a restaurant, too,” John DiSanto said.

Now Anjon’s has a co-packer lined up and is ready to try again. It’s one of many steps the 62-year-old restaurant has taken over the past year or so to keep its doors open.

Anjon’s prides itself on redecorating every decade or so. It’s known for the fountain at the entrance, its views of Scarborough marsh, the $6,000 mural over the bar depicting the Bay of Naples, and the wine cork walls, made with thousands of corks, that took six years to create. Locally, it’s still the place to go on prom night.

But the restaurant has been feeling the pinch since overflow from Portland’s restaurant scene has flooded the area with new places to eat. Once, Anjon’s was the only restaurant along the Scarborough Route 1 corridor that was open year round, DiSanto said. Now, more places are opening in the neighborhood – Dunstan Tap & Table, O’Reilly’s Cure, Nonesuch River Brewing – and giving the Italian-American institution some competition.

“Our sales have dipped,” DiSanto said. “There’s not as much of the pie to go around.”

Last year, Anjon’s started closing on Mondays. “We thought it was too much on payroll and food costs,” DiSanto said.

The restaurant has also scaled back its huge menu, cutting about a dozen items. Some dishes, however, are non-negotiable. DiSanto once tried hiring a fine dining chef who had worked in some of Portland’s better restaurants, but it didn’t work out because the chef wanted to take spaghetti off the menu.

Another thing that won’t change – using tablecloths and nice napkins, the kind of touches that gave the restaurant its motto, “Come home to Anjon’s.”

“We didn’t want to lose that homey feeling,” DiSanto said. “Restaurants now, they’re loud with TVs. It’s a decision we made to keep our standards.”

When the DiSantos couldn’t get their asking price for Anjon’s, they took the restaurant off the market, deciding that having family take over the place is “probably the only way it will work because they know how we’ve done it for so many years.”

“You have to be consistent,” DiSanto said. “That’s the biggest thing. And you have to change with the times.”

Tony Napolitano Jr., chef/owner of Maria’s, agrees that consistency is key. Maria’s, which has a newly renovated dining room, was founded by Tony Napolitano’s parents in 1960 on Veranda Street, then in 1968 moved to Westbrook before settling into its third home on Cumberland Avenue in Portland. It still serves only family recipes.

“In my family, everything has to do around Italian food,” Napolitano said. “That was their love, and that was their passion, and they passed that passion down to me and my brother.”

Napolitano has welcomed the binge of new restaurants in Portland because it has drawn more people to the city who are interested in eating all types of cuisine. Napolitano says he has noticed more young people coming in who want to try “true Italian,” such as his homemade ricotta gnocchi and eggplant parm. “They like the intimacy of the restaurant as well,” he said.

‘IT’S LIKE FAMILY’

When Casa Novello opened in 2000, in a 1910 building, it was one of just a few places to eat in Westbrook.

“We had our own little niche,” said former chef/owner Gary Manoogian. “Plus, I owned the property.” Rental apartments above the restaurant helped pay the bills, he said.

Originally, Manoogian made everything from scratch, including the pasta, bread and pizza dough. Eventually, he began buying some of those items because making them was too expensive and time consuming. By 2018, there were more than 20 options in town for lunch and dinner, Manoogian said, all of them cutting into his profits. He had no family interested in taking over the business, so he only needed a week to think about it when Lawler asked if he were interested in selling. At 62, he was ready to retire.

In addition to making menu changes, Lawler bought new plates and silverware. The tables are covered in black tablecloths, which are in turn covered in white paper.

On a recent visit on an especially cold Friday night, the restaurant felt cozy, warm and romantic. A candle and a fresh red rose with baby’s breath sat on each table, along with a caddy filled with bottles of olive oil, salt and pepper. Ceiling fans slowly turned above. A television over the bar played the image of a crackling fireplace, and a dreamy version of “At Last” played in the background. The dining room was moderately full, and not a single person was glued to their phone. Lawler checked on each table herself.

“It’s like a family to me,” she said. “I want to have a place that’s fresh, amazing food, and I want to feed people.”

Maybe this is the way old-school tradition moves forward – a big bowl of respect for history, with a healthy side of change.

Correction: This story was updated at 3 p.m. Tuesday, March 12, 2019, to correct the origins of the DiMillo family.


Comments are not available on this story.

filed under:

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.