ROCKPORT—Italian born-and-raised restaurateur Sante Calandri was not about to let a pandemic stop him from opening his new restaurant, Ports of Italy, in Rockport last week.
With a sister property in Boothbay Harbor, he’d always had his eye on the Midcoast and when the Helm restaurant came up for sale, he jumped on the opportunity. For the last year, he set to work on redesigning the place, adding two decks that overlook the forest-covered river in back. Set originally to open this past spring, the pandemic put up obstacles to his plans.
But, you don’t start working in a famous Italian restaurant at the age of 13, move to New York City at the age of 24 to work as a dishwasher at a restaurant in Little Italy, and then earn your way up the restaurant ladder, absorbing everything you can about the industry in one of the most competitive cities on earth just to quit when a few obstacles come up.
A driven self-starter, Calandri imbues the same level of excellence to his food and service. Having brought Italian chef Alessandro D'Alessi with him to Rockport, Calandri ensures his pastas are all made by hand with semolina flour, no egg.
“Egg is too heavy; we just use water and flour—it’s nice, light pasta,” said Calandri. “And we don’t do anything fried,” he said. “I won’t do it.”
D’Alessi has 35 years in the kitchen, and like Calandri, also moved from Italy to New York as a youth to work in Italian restaurants, bringing the craft of fine Italian cuisine with him.
His dishes, such as the Ravioli Di Astice, made with Maine lobster and local ricotta floats on a dream of creamy prosecco and aurora sauce. It’s something with which you want to curl up with on the couch and watch your favorite movie.
With a simple menu consisting of appetizers, salads, vegetarian options, homemade pasta dishes, and Secondi—or traditional Italian meat dishes, Calandri and d’Alessi aim to introduce the real flavors they grew up with.
Most Americans who’ve never had those flavors, might come to expect that “Italian food” consists of lasagnas, chicken parmesans, or spaghetti and meatballs, but he prefers to surprise people with handmade sauces and fresh, local ingredients in dishes they can’t get anywhere else.
Diners have raved about the Calandri’s Rollantini Di Melanzane, rolled eggplant stuffed with local ricotta and parmesan cheese, fresh herbs, garlic, tomato sauce and topped with fresh mozzarella. The Porchetta Di Ariccia, is another hit, an arricia-style roasted suckling pig.
With a couple of friends-and-family soft opening nights to work the kinks out behind them, the new restaurant officially opened Friday, September 4, for dinner. It was fortuitous that he contracted with Colson's Excavation & Landscaping Inc. to construct a deck and patio seating into the building plan, because for the remainder of the fall when the nights are still warm, outdoor dining is an option, with seating for 60 inside with spaced-out tables and a cozy bar that is ideal for individuals or couples who want an even more casual ambiance with a nice dinner and a glass of wine.
Speaking of wines, Calandri’s extensive wine list is a veritable book, and it has taken him 27 years to compile it, tasting and vetting each one.
“If I don’t like it; it won’t be on the menu. These are all the ones I like,” he said.
For Calandri, the move to Maine after a long stint working and living in New York City, has been the right move, both professionally and personally.
“It’s relaxing up here,” he said.
He will divide his time between Boothbay and Rockport, with a trusted friend, Jeff Teel, general manager, overseeing the day-to-day operations.
Ports of Italy opens at 4:30 to 7 p.m., seven days a week. For more information, visit their Facebook page.
Kay Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org