Fifty Dollar Dinner

photo/Hannah Joyce McCain
photo/Hannah Joyce McCain

Tomasso’s Canteen
18 Hampshire St., Portland

Tomaso’s Canteen is a small victory for the blue-collar crowd in the wider class war that’s being lost on so many other fronts in town.

After Portland police and the nanny state unjustly forced Sangillo’s Tavern to close last winter, locals worried the beloved neighborhood bar at the base of Munjoy Hill would become just another condo or bistro. But the building’s owner, Nicolino Ciccomancini, held his ground in the face of an onslaught of developers promising big pay-offs if he’d sell out. Instead, he turned the keys over to Sam Minervino, owner of Samuel’s Bar & Grill, on Forest Avenue.

Tomaso’s honors the neighborhood’s history as a home for hungry, hard-working immigrants — the area was once called Portland’s Little Italy. As chef Shawn Freeman put it, “the goal was definitely to appeal to the old patrons.” Sangillo’s opened at 8 a.m., an hour that catered to third-shift workers, fishermen just off the boat or off the wagon, and the clientele that crave a shot and beer for breakfast. Tomaso’s starts serving at 11, so thirsty early birds are still out of luck, but unlike the Hampshire Street Sangillo’s, the Canteen has a full menu, like Sangillo’s offered when the tavern was located a block away, on India Street, a few decades ago.

With its sleek gray color palette and polished wood bar, Tomaso’s is more stylish than Sangillo’s was, but there’s still no pretention. When we walked in from a snowstorm on a weekday evening last month, the bartender greeted my friend, already a regular, by name. A section of the menu lists beer-and-shot combos like the Grownup PB&J (PBR and a shot of Jameson, $8). And though they’ve gone up a buck in price since the old days, you can still order a Sangillo’s standby, the Jell-O shot ($2.50 “when available,” which they were not on this particular night).

Having struggled to put two meals together for under $50 at two pricier establishments this year, it was a relief to look at a menu of uncomplicated, inexpensive pub fare like onion rings, steak bombs, and red hot dogs. There wasn’t a sautéed Brussels sprout in sight!

My husband, our friend and I ordered a bar-food smorgasbord. The cheese fries ($5) were salty and soft, buried under a pile of chopped bacon ($2 extra) and topped with a house-made cheese sauce. That same cheese sauce (a secret recipe, heavy on the Velveeta) is used to great effect in the decadent Southern BBQ–style mac and cheese ($5). We had a half order of chicken wings ($6) prepared “dirt” style: fried, dunked in some doctored-up Frank’s RedHot, and then fried again. This gave the wings a crispy, spicy skin that begs the question, Why would you order your wings any other way? The burger ($6, plus $1 per topping and/or $2 per additional 5 oz. patty) was simple and satisfying, cooked to a juicy medium with a pleasant char.

Our food totaled just $26, which left plenty of money for drinks. My husband and our friend each got a shot-and-beer combo: the El Guapo (Tecate and El Jimador tequila, $8) and the Italian-American (Budweiser and Fernet Branca, $9), respectively. Both were just as good as you’d expect the sum of their parts to be. I was tempted to try the Manadian (Miller High Life and Canadian Club, $7), which would have brought our tab to exactly $50 (before tax and tip), but instead splurged on the Old School Old Fashioned ($9), made with Wild Turkey 101, turbinado syrup, and two kinds of bitters (orange and Angostura). It was worth every one of those 200 extra cents.

At Tomaso’s, it ain’t tough to treat yourself right.

—Hannah Joyce McCain

Tomaso’s Canteen serves food from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. daily.

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