Bresca closed seven years ago, but people still reminisce about it. More than once when interviewing a Maine chef, I’ve been told that a dish (usually one I enjoyed very much) was inspired by a gauzy memory of something savored at Krista Kern Desjarlais’s cozy, mostly Italian trattoria.

At the end of this new decade, I am certain we’ll feel just as wistful about Drifters Wife and Piccolo.

Both restaurants shut their doors permanently last month – Portland’s first high-profile casualties of the novel coronavirus pandemic. But it’s only now, after weeks of thinking about their absence, that I’ve started to see why the two restaurants were so important, and how their example can become a model for whatever sprouts from the fallow of the city’s locked-down food scene.

Ilma Lopez and Damian Sansonetti at Piccolo in 2014. The tiny, intimate restaurant was a victim of the pandemic, but the couple continue to operate their second restaurant, Chaval. John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

In 2012, as chefs Ilma Lopez and Damian Sansonetti ate their first meal in the state of Maine, they were instantly, irrevocably charmed by Portland. So much so, the couple began to daydream about moving from New York City to join a flourishing community of restaurateurs who, it was clear, were creating something unique here.

Ask the couple about that memorable evening, and they can still point out where they sat. They’re not sure what it was called at Bresca, but until July, it was Piccolo’s Table 14.

When Lopez and Sansonetti accepted the keys to the pint-sized space on Middle Street, they knew people would miss its former resident, but with a clear-eyed vision, they were confident that in time, they’d bring people around to their take on Calabrian-inspired cooking.

“We had a lot of trust,” pastry chef Ilma Lopez told me in 2019.

Diners fill the tables at Piccolo on a December Saturday evening in 2013. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

In hindsight, that might well be the most important asset Sansonetti and Lopez brought with them to Piccolo. The couple’s trust was multidimensional: a layered architecture of quiet confidence strong enough to support a 20-seat restaurant in a town that hasn’t always been hospitable to chefs from New York.

Clearly, they knew they could trust one another in the kitchen – that’s where Lopez and Sansonetti met, after all. But it would be reductive to imply that they believed in one another simply because they were married. Their mutual respect kept the two curious about what the other was up to, forever peeking over the other person’s shoulder, cadging techniques and ideas, and ultimately, building a menu that couldn’t have existed without either partner.

A wabi-sabi makeover in neutral shades reshaped the space’s identity and, through a non-Euclidean miracle, made the dining room feel larger. In early 2019, they repeated the trick by hiring then-Rhode-Island-based artist Rebecca Volynsky, whose mural cleverly complicated the physical boundaries between wall and ceiling. Lopez described the decision to add the abstract touches as a trust exercise: “We knew her because she’s the girlfriend of our chef de cuisine, Luke Aberle. She has this super-cool art, and we thought, if she’s up to come to Maine to do something, we’ll do it … bring in some color. We didn’t know what, but we just somehow knew it would be awesome.”

Their quiet, firmly held belief in their vision, execution, and each other lives on at their West End restaurant, Chaval. But now, Portlanders take for granted our own trust in Sansonetti and Lopez.

We have Piccolo to thank for that.

Peter and Orenda Hale pose for a portrait with their then 10-month-old daughter, Lola, at Drifters Wife around the time they were moving their restaurant and wine shop to a larger space next door. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

When Drifters Wife (the first incarnation) opened in the summer of 2016, it did not have ghosts-of-restaurants-past to contend with.

Occupying an unremarkable segment of the clumsily divided Nissen Bakery building on Washington Avenue, Drifters Wife 1.0 was an object lesson on how to turn blunt, boxy geometry into homey charm.

It owed this alchemy to owners Peter and Orenda Hale, Brooklyn transplants who two years earlier had installed their natural wine shop, Maine + Loire, at the back of the space. And just like Lopez and Sansonetti, they faced an uphill climb winning over Mainers – first to the appeal of drinking small-harvest, minimally “fussed with” wines that sometimes cost a bit more than their corporate counterparts, and then to the idea of sipping those same wines while eating a meal prepared in a kitchen with no open flame.

But they never doubted it would work. “We want to offer people what we like. It’s not a lot larger than that,” Peter Hale said in 2016. “It’s like any tacit agreement with any other business. You agree with and like what they’re doing and what they present, and then you grow to trust them.”

It didn’t take long. Within a year of opening, Drifters Wife and Maine + Loire earned local and national praise, as much for the deliberate, wide-ranging selection of natural wines on offer as for chef Ben Jackson’s cooking. And if the trio of former Wythe Hotel employees harbored any doubts that a kitchen with an undersized electric oven and two induction burners would prove adequate, nobody let on.

In part, that’s because, as Orenda Hale told me in 2016, they understood Jackson’s commitment to seasonality and local sourcing, and shared his convictions that equipment and technology were secondary to quality ingredients.

It didn’t occur to me until I went back to visit the second iteration of Drifters Wife, relocated to comparatively massive digs in the chic, moody space next door, why the Hales and Jackson all seemed tuned to the same mental radio station.

Grapes. Of course, it’s grapes.

Peter Hale straightens out flatware on a table before dinner service starts at Drifters Wife in 2018. The restaurant closed permanently this summer because of the pandemic. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Natural wines are fickle creatures, always at the mercy of drought or deluge, heat wave or cold snap, mystery fungus or swell in the local insect population. Some years, because of the quality of the grape crop, the Hales’ favorite vintners weren’t able to produce anything worth exporting. Other years, they’d be flush with bottles of wooly, funky, effervescent sippers. Rather than attempt to hide this unpredictability, Maine + Loire and Drifters Wife both made a feature of it. These wines, just like strawberries and soft shell crabs, were seasonal.

But Drifters Wife relied upon more than a shared belief in the primacy of ingredients. Perhaps even more central to its success, and the reason why I maintain it is the single most important restaurant to open in Portland since 2015, was the entire team’s faith in the competence of their colleagues.

Jackson comprehended that he could throw unorthodox ingredients like succulent, saline agretti into the mix, and its perfect beverage pairing would always be at hand, and the Hales, in turn, knew implicitly that their ever-changing bottle inventory was diverse enough to keep up with Jackson’s culinary zigs and zags.

“We trust Ben to do what he wants. If you have good enough wine and good enough food, it’s pretty rare that you’d screw it up,” Peter Hale said.

“We get eye-opening combinations, that’s true,” Orenda Hale added. “But part of the fun is the explorations of crazy flavors, having it be wild and weird. When it’s just us, we’ll drink whatever wine we feel like drinking with whatever we feel like eating. But when people come in and are open to it, we can guide them if they tell us what they enjoy. They just have to trust us.”

And we did, at Drifters Wife and Piccolo alike. Not because the restaurateurs pleaded or demanded, but because they made their case with soft-spoken conviction each night of service, with every warm greeting, every brick chicken, every Barbaresco and every budino.

Now that’s something to remember.

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