337 Cumberland Ave., Portland
The dining room is dimly lit by wrought-iron chandeliers hanging from a low ceiling. Wooden nutcrackers are displayed in nooks along the walls, and a jolly three-foot-tall Santa Claus stares out from behind the decorative frosted glass separating the dining area from the kitchen. The waiters all wear white button-downs and black trousers. The tablecloths are stiff burgundy vinyl. “Did they have the big, heavy menus?” a friend inquired. Of course! And the shaker of dusty parmesan, and the heavy cloth napkins folded into neat triangles, banquet-style.
At Maria’s Ristorante, on Cumberland Avenue, even the air is vintage 1960, the year Anthony and Madeline Napolitano established this downtown Portland institution.
Our jocular waiter reels off a list of specials — seafood fra diavolo, cheesy arancini — so easily that we wonder if they ever rotate. We stick to the classics on the cheaper side of the menu, starting with garlic bread with mozzarella and marinara ($6.95) and a half-liter of the house red, Placido Chianti ($13).
Food arrives at such a leisurely pace that we wonder if it isn’t traveling to our table from a bygone era. But the garlic bread doesn’t disappoint. Which is to say, it’s just what we expected: slabs of soft, chewy, buttery white bread, topped with bubbling mozzarella, light on the garlic, accompanied by a salty, soupy marinara. The mozzarella is fresh, not shredded, and procured from Micucci’s, the grocery store on India Street where Maria’s sources all its imported ingredients. The two best things about the chianti are the fact that it’s wine and there’s lots of it.
The wide gap between the arrival of our starter and main course is partially filled by a basket of bread and butter. We spend the time soaking in the surroundings.
“Is everything going well?” the waiter asks the couple next to us. “No!” declares the thin woman with a fantastically sprayed pouffe of bleached hair. “It’s going fabulously.” At the next table over, a roundish man is describing his church’s trip to the shooting range. “It was all about responsible gun ownership,” he says. His tablemates listen with genuine enthusiasm.
We’ve eaten too much bread by the time our main courses show up, but dutifully dig in anyway. The baked Rigatoni alla Napoli ($14.95), described on the menu as one of the restaurant’s signature dishes, unchanged since the Kennedy Administration, is classic comfort food: ribbed pasta in tomato sauce, topped with a thin layer of melted cheeses. The spaghettini and meatballs ($15.95) is a similar story, a heaping portion of thin pasta strands slathered in an unobtrusive red sauce with several giant, soft meatballs on top. A dusting of grated parmesan is all this dish needs to achieve its full potential: the Platonic ideal of mid-century Italian-American fare.
Anthony and Madeline passed Maria’s down to the next generation of Napolitanos, who’ve maintained the family restaurant’s old-school charm. The ristorante did not get left behind by the times — it stayed behind, and we left feeling grateful that it did.
— Hannah Joyce McCain